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China is a wealthy ‘nation of nations’ with a huge middle class, gigantic manufacturing capacity, its own dotcom boom, the world’s largest high-speed rail network, and one of the best educated workforces in the world. China needs to be visited many times to be understood by people from distant parts of the world.

China is evolving rapidly and for many globalised corporations manufacturing in China is becoming a rather old-fashioned idea, because of rising costs.

300 year re-balancing of the world order

If we consider China's long history, 400 years ago the nation was one sixth of humanity's population and represented a similar proportion of global wealth. China lost ground as a result of the industrial revolution and what followed.

The rise of China today is part of a 300 year re-balancing trend, bringing us back where we were before.  In that sense, the phrase "emerging market" is far from the truth when it comes to China.  More accurate in historical terms is to describe the transition from 1990 to 2040 as a natural restoration of China's position in the world.

World's largest economy is now China

China is already the world’s largest economy according to the World Bank, on the measure of purchasing power parity (PPP), which looks at what the local currency will actually buy, after adjusting for international exchange rates.  China’s economy will be three times the size of India’s in 2025, as it is today, but we can expect that India will close that gap in the longer term.

On an absolute dollar basis, China will be the world’s largest economy by 2024, propelled by a threefold rise in consumer spending each year from $3.5 trillion in 2014 to $10.5 trillion by 2024. This will all be part of a transition from an export-led, manufacturing economy to a more balanced economy serving Chinese consumers.

As a direct consequence, global trade in the renminbi (RMB) will rise. It has already overtaken the euro as the world’s second most important currency for trade after the dollar.

Expect consumer spending in China to continue to grow by at least 7% on average each year for the next 15 years, with occasional dips in the adjustment process. By 2025, China’s consumer market will be three times larger than Japan’s.

Leadership of China

President Xi Jinping is becoming the most powerful leader that China has seen since Chairman Mao, with popular agendas such as stamping out corruption, breaking up state monopolies, faster economic reforms, greater equality and developing China as a powerful nation.

We can expect him to run China efficiently, to a grand master plan with visionary investments for China’s future.

China’s leadership will do all it can to maintain economic growth above 6.5% a year for the next two decades, to reduce risk of civil unrest. It is likely to succeed. The memory of revolution is strong and unsettling.

Every adult in China aged 65 today has vivid memories of life as a young adult under the Red Guards and the Cultural Revolution led by Chairman Mao.

The future workforce in China - migration

As we have seen, at least 300 million of the poorest Chinese people will migrate to cities over the next 25 years, seeking a better life, providing extra labour to compensate for the ageing workforce.

A further 600 million middle-class people will be expecting better choices, personal freedoms, and will be increasingly strong in their private opinions about how their region should be governed, about pollution and corruption, size of their families or future well-being of their children.

Expect China to further develop its own form of democracy, allowing regional voting for candidates with different policies, even if technically as part of a one-party state, within the limits of national policy.

China will continue to age as a society because of the one-child policy. Shortage of younger workers has been partly hidden by migration from rural areas. An additional challenge for China is that many families over the last 30 years have chosen to have a boy as a single child – either by selective abortion or in some cases infanticide.

There is now a significant gender imbalance – 50 million women may be ‘missing’. More Chinese men will look for a lifelong match with someone born outside China, using dating agencies and other means.

China will relax further its one-child policy, worried about meeting the needs of an ageing population, and about the lack of younger workers. The population of working age is shrinking by several million a year.

Regionalisation will continue within China 

There is more than one China: culture, tastes and fashions vary hugely from one part of the country to another, together with what is permitted locally. Over 400 million people do not speak Mandarin.

Expect large companies to decentralise their decision-making within China rather than concentrate leadership in a city like Shanghai or Beijing. Expect more localised product development, branding and marketing.

Freedom of speech, religion and fertility in China

Chinese is already the dominant language of the web, and many of the world’s greatest online companies over the next two decades will be born in China. Expect the government to continue to walk a narrow line between embracing the freedoms of the virtual world and wanting to control it.

China has introduced more than 60 internet regulations and control measures, and has its own version of the web, behind a Firewall, so that the pages available to Chinese citizens are ones screened by the government systems, which include powerful Artificial Intelligence filters.  

Over 2 million people are employed in monitoring / policing the web, according to Chinese government reports in 2013.

China recently announced a proposal that every citizen will effectively have a government rating for trust and reliability, based on many different factors including their patterns of web activity, social media postings, social media contact lists and so on.  

This rating may be used in future to determine what kind of online access people are allowed, even what speed they can access the web.  

Such measures can seem authoritarian to many in nations like America who have a completely different culture and history of free speech. To many, possibly most, in China, such steps are likely to be viewed as necessary to protect wider society.

Senior government leaders recognise that many profound changes are inevitable soon if the nation is to transition peacefully.

They recognise that major unrest could be triggered not only by lack of jobs and lower economic growth but also by anger over corruption, inflation, inequality, pollution, over-zealous censorship and lack of religious freedom.  

Many researchers believe that there are more Christians in China today than in any other nation, but they mainly worship in relatively informal groups, unrecognised by local or regional governments.

A sensitive dilemma for leaders of governments and churches is how to resolve this in a way which allows freedom to gather for worship, while dealing with concerns government has about large, rapidly growing people movements with huge influence.

The government also fears wider contagion from regional unrest in places like Xinjiang, among Muslim Uighars, and also in Tibet.

Stamping out official Chinese corruption

Expect rapidly growing numbers of arrests for corruption. Many suppliers of premium retail such as watches, perfumes and hotels have been hit by an absolute ban on expensive business gifts and extravagant lifestyles by public officials.

The fifty wealthiest members of China’s National People’s Congress own more than $94bn. Expect many more probes into how and where leadership wealth was made. Over 250,000 officials have been prosecuted, removed from office or punished in other ways in less than three years.

Renewable energy will improve China’s environment

We are already seeing investment on a vast scale into renewable energy, especially wind power, to reduce air pollution in major cities (and seize the global market in renewables).

Expect far-reaching measures to reduce water pollution and food contamination. China now requires 15,000 enterprises to publicly report their air pollution levels, water use and heavy metal discharges in real time – until recently such matters were government secrets.

From export-led growth to domestic-market dominance

China’s image as the factory of the world will change, as costs of manufacturing in China continue to rise. China will lose jobs to nations like Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar – even to Europe, Mexico and the US.

China’s future economy will be driven more by domestic demand from its own growing middle class, and by investment in new technologies such as high-speed rail, wind energy and biotech.

Growth of retail spending in China is likely to exceed GDP growth by 3?5% on average over the next decade, as middle-class consumers save less, and draw down their assets.

China buying up the world

A growing part of China’s sovereign wealth is being diversified into new investments in other nations: property, farmland, mines, factories, utilities and other infrastructure.

Back home, expect booms and busts in Chinese real estate, with risks of a severe banking crisis due to poorly controlled lending and accumulated bad debts, particularly in the state sector (see pxx).

We will continue to see bold, visionary moves by the Chinese government, resulting in giant industrial enterprises and breathtaking infrastructure projects. China will continue to spend between 6?8% of GDP on infrastructure for the next decade.

Territorial disputes and armed conflicts

Expect China to expand regional influence, largely through economic means, with a range of strategies.

China is unlikely to be territorially ambitious, except in the case of sparsely populated islands, which would enable it to extract new energy or mineral resources. China will have challenges managing all the territory it already controls, including Tibet.

As with Russia, events from the Second World War are likely to continue to overshadow foreign policy, in particular the relationship with Japan. This particularly relates to alleged atrocities which are downplayed by many Japanese leaders.

Doing business in China

Expect ongoing complaints by many global businesses and smaller investors that business is difficult in China.

Expect some multinationals to pull out altogether, blaming a wide range of barriers to business including corruption, red tape, hostility by government to companies that take profits out of China, careless attitude to intellectual property, ruthless self-interest, lack of transparency in business dealings, etc. Revlon, L’Oréal (Garnier brand) and Yahoo were among the first to abandon China.

Chinese companies to watch

Alibaba – world’s largest e-commerce platform, specialising in business to business sales (see pxx).

Lenovo – bought IBM’s computer business, now world’s largest PC maker, bought Motorola’s smartphone business and IBM’s server business. Third-largest smartphone maker after Apple and Samsung.

Huawei – second-largest telco equipment company in world, banned from US and Australia public sector contracts over fears that its equipment could be used to spy on behalf of the Chinese government.

Xiaomi – China’s Apple – smartphone and tablets; threat to Samsung.

Holdings – 650 million users of messenger App, fifth-largest internet company in the world in 2014 after Google, Amazon, eBay and Facebook. Highly innovative.

Baidu – main search engine in China, with 66% of market, fits in with government rules.

ZTE – one of world’s 10 largest smartphone companies, also telco network equipment. Expect huge success for their ultra-low cost smartphones.

Source of this article: The Future of Almost Everything book - by Patrick Dixon - 2015.

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