OECD Economic Surveys: China

2072-5027 (online)
2072-5035 (print)
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OECD's periodic reviews of the Chinese economy.  Each edition examines recent economic developments, policy and prospects, and makes a series of recommendations.
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OECD Economic Surveys: China 2010

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02 Feb 2010
9789264076686 (PDF) ;9789264076679(print)

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This 2010 edition of OECD's periodic review of China's economy finds that China's spectacular expansion has continued in recent years, making for impressive improvements in living standards. The slowdown associated with the global financial and economic crisis was contained by massive fiscal and monetary policy stimulus, which has boosted domestic demand. This survey includes chapters on recent achievements and prospects, monetary policy, financial reforms, product market regulation and competition, inequality, the labour market, old-age security and the health care system.
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  • Basic Statistics of China
  • Executive summary
    Since the OECD’s first Economic Survey of China in 2005, China has continued to expand rapidly. The economy is also weathering the global crisis remarkably well, not least thanks to prompt and vigorous macroeconomic policy action. Economic expansion is projected to continue over the medium run, and China’s share in the world economy is set to grow further. Despite the recent decline in the current account surplus, some imbalances remain, notably an overly high national saving rate, but ongoing reforms can be expected to help alleviate them over time. Structural reform has continued on a broad front in recent years, with an increasing focus on the need for social cohesion. Even so, efforts are under way or still needed in a number of areas to sustain improvements in living standards over the longer run.
  • Assessment and recommendations
    Since the OECD’s first Economic Survey of China in 2005, China’s economy has continued to expand rapidly, driven to a large extent by the development of the private sector. Exports were hit hard by the global crisis and activity slowed down sharply over the course of 2008. However, prompt and vigorous policy actions, as well as swift adjustment in the labour market, helped growth pick up by the second quarter of 2009, putting China in the lead of the global recovery. Going forward, China’s importance in the world economy is set to increase further, as are living standards within the country. In fact, China already has the world’s second-largest economy in purchasing power parity terms, and is expected to shortly achieve the same rank at market exchange rates. It already has the world’s secondlargest manufacturing sector and is the world’s largest exporter of goods. Growth will likely continue to be driven largely by investment and a trend shift out of low-productivity agriculture, as the urbanisation rate, which is approaching 50%, continues to rise. While the size of the labour force is not projected to increase much, education levels have soared since the early 1980s, which will support future productivity growth.
  • Achievements, prospects and further challenges
    China’s spectacular economic expansion has continued in recent years, making for impressive improvements in living standards. The slowdown associated with the global financial and economic crisis was contained by massive fiscal and monetary policy stimulus, which has boosted domestic demand. While the current account surplus is shrinking, some macroeconomic imbalances remain, in particular in the form of a high national saving rate. A key adjustment will be to durably lower government saving. Ongoing social reforms can be expected to help in this respect, provided they are sufficiently funded by the central government. Rapid further urbanisation will require greater labour mobility. This calls for gradually phasing out the still rigid registration system and the attendant differences in social entitlements, notably as regards education, welfare assistance, pensions and health care. More accessible and better public services will also strengthen social cohesion. To sustain vigorous economic growth beyond the ongoing recovery, it will be important to further liberalise product and financial markets.
  • Further monetary policy framework reform
    As a result of reforms and financial sector development, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) now exerts significant control over money market interest rates. With money market conditions increasingly influencing effective commercial lending rates, the PBoC is also able to affect the cost of credit without recourse to its benchmark commercial bank rates. Furthermore, interest rates are an important determinant of investment spending in China, via the user cost of capital, and aggregate economic activity influences inflation. Hence, greater use of interest rates in implementing monetary policy would enhance macroeconomic stabilisation while avoiding a number of drawbacks of the current quantity-based approach. In addition, increased flexibility in the exchange rate would enhance its role in offsetting macroeconomic shocks and offer the PBoC more scope to tailor monetary policy to domestic macroeconomic conditions. Concurrently, changes in the PBoC’s policy stance should be predicated on informed judgments based on the monitoring of a set of indicators in conjunction with a flexible inflation objective.
  • Progress on financial reforms
    Reforms to modernise and strengthen the financial sector have continued in recent years. The cleaning-up of the stock of non-performing loans is largely completed and considerable progress has been made in improving commercial banks’ corporate governance structures and risk management systems. These reforms have given rise to stronger Chinese banks which have so far weathered the global slowdown well. Reform of capital markets has focused on phasing out trading prohibitions on non-traded shares and modernising securities market institutions. Efforts have also been made to improve credit access to underserved segments, notably small and medium-sized enterprises and rural China. Despite progress in opening up the financial sector to international investors and in allowing domestic investors to invest abroad, liberalisation has been slow and in most market segments the foreign share remains very small. Ownership of financial institutions remains dominated by the State, raising issues concerning the financial system’s ability to serve the private sector as well as the extent to which banks lending decisions are based purely on commercial considerations. Although the bond market has continued to grow, corporate bond issuance remains relatively small and this segment will need to be further developed in order to address the current over-reliance on the banking system.
  • Product market regulation and competition
    The extent of competition in product markets is an important determinant of economic growth in both developed and developing countries. This chapter presents and uses the first vintage of the OECD’s indicators of product market regulation for China to assess the extent to which China’s regulatory environment is supportive of competition in markets for goods and services. The results indicate that, although competition is increasingly robust across most markets, the overall level of product market regulation is still restrictive in international comparisons. These impediments to competition are likely to constrain growth more and more as the economy continues to develop and becomes more sophisticated. The chapter goes on to review various aspects of China’s regulatory framework and suggests a number of policy initiatives that would improve the extent to which competitive market forces are able to operate. Breaking the traditional links between state-owned enterprises and government agencies is an ongoing challenge. Reducing administrative burdens, increasing private sector involvement in network sectors and lowering barriers to foreign direct investment in services would also increase competition and enhance productivity growth going forward.
  • A pause in the growth of inequality?
    In recent years, policymaking in China has put increasing emphasis on stemming the growth in inequality, which had been fairly steep since the 1980s. Policy action has taken the form of regional development measures and of reforms of various aspects of the social safety net broadly defined. The Western Development Plan has aimed at narrowing the income gap between the sparsely populated and underdeveloped West and the more prosperous and faster-growing East. The bulk of the expenditure, however, has been on large capital-intensive projects rather than on education and other social spending. More emphasis on education would help reduce the income gap, since human capital is a key determinant of income. Government policies to improve conditions in rural areas nationwide have involved a substantial reduction in the burden of regressive taxes and fees. Welfare assistance has also evolved: a minimum living allowance has been introduced in urban and more recently in rural areas, but it has not reduced poverty that much, not least because of how it is administered. Moreover, the financing of this allowance ought to rely more on national solidarity and its delivery needs to be better co-ordinated with that of other social benefits. A set of new indicators of nationwide inequality, based on household survey data, suggests that overall inequality has ceased to increase in recent years, and may even have inched down. Alternative measures of income inequality across provinces show that, if migration is taken into account, disparities are markedly less, and have tended to decline somewhat in recent years. Even so, geographical inequality remains very high by international standards. It reflects intra- more than inter-provincial differences, pointing to persistent, if diminishing, labour market segmentation.
  • A labour market in transition
    Over the past decade, the share of jobs not controlled by the state has increased considerably, whilst employment in agriculture has declined, against the backdrop of ongoing urbanisation. Over 200 million people have been drawn into urban areas through official or unofficial migration, despite various obstacles to labour mobility, including the registration system and the associated restrictions to social service access. New labour laws were introduced in 2008 to better protect employees in a market now dominated by private-sector employers, notably via more systematic use of and adherence to written labour contracts, in particular of indefinite duration ones. To what extent the new legislation and implementing regulations will be enforced remains to be seen. For the time being, de facto employment protection is far less than de jure, with an enduring preponderance of fixed-term contracts involving few restrictions. Minimum wages are set locally and have not kept up with average wages, nor are they effectively enforced. During the recent slowdown, average wages adjusted rapidly and employment was soon on the rise again. However, this episode also highlighted the need to integrate migrants better, not least by relaxing registration rules.
  • Providing greater old-age security
    China’s population is set to age fast, owing to low fertility and rising life expectancy. With ongoing migration of the younger cohorts to urban areas the increase in the old-age dependency ratio will be more pronounced in rural than in urban areas. Very different pension arrangements exist across the country, with diverse and segmented systems in urban areas, belated retirement and low replacement ratios in rural areas, and special rules governing public sector pensions. Labour mobility is impeded by some of features of the current pension system, not least limited benefit portability. Urban pensions underwent parametric reform in 2005 and some geographical pooling was introduced more recently. Measures were also taken in 2005 to raise the coverage of the self-employed and those with flexible forms of employment. A new rural pension scheme was announced in mid-2009 and provisions to cover migrants were proposed. Some of the recent reforms added to the existing fragmentation, while others, notably those providing for greater geographical pooling, have only partly been implemented. Also, under current rules, effective replacement rates are fairly low and projected to decline further, both for rural and urban residents, which may be difficult to sustain with the elderly living less and less with their descendants. Furthermore, as the countryside ages, much of the additional burden will be shouldered by local governments with insufficient resources. These challenges can be addressed by gradually consolidating the various regimes, raising retirement ages and shifting more of the cost of rural pensions to the central government. Even if different schemes for different categories of workers were to persist, each should be unified over time, first provincially and then nationally, phasing out the urban-rural distinction.
  • Improving the health care system
    On a number of measures, health outcomes in China have improved tremendously over the past three decades, especially thanks to the reduction in some traditional infectious diseases. However, death rates from chronic diseases have been on the rise, not least owing to changes in life styles, including rising tobacco consumption and deteriorating environmental conditions. Supply of health care is overwhelmingly provided publicly and hospitals have been absorbing a growing share of the resources, at the expense of primary care. The number of doctors has increased fast but the level of qualification of incumbent doctors is often modest. Demand for care has risen rapidly, in line with incomes, and the relative price of care soared through the early 2000s. Hospital budgets and their doctors’ pay are partly based on the pharmaceuticals they prescribe and sell, whose prices are regulated and involve considerable cross-subsidisation. Faced with these imbalances and incentive problems, the government has launched a number of reforms since 2003. New insurance schemes have been rolled out both in rural and urban areas. As a result, coverage and use of medical facilities has increased a lot, except for migrants. In practice, however, catastrophic but also chronic illnesses continue to push people into poverty, especially in the poorer regions, given that risk pooling at the national level remains limited. A new set of reforms has been announced in 2009, aiming at universal, safe, affordable and effective basic health care by 2020. They involve investment in medical infrastructure, generalising coverage, more focus on prevention, a new essential drugs system and far-reaching reorganisation, including hospital reform. It will be important to make sure that primary care plays a greater role and that hospitals are managed more efficiently with less of a hierarchical structure. Indeed a reform that just focuses on increasing insurance coverage and not on reforming the supply side may not be effective. Progress will also require changes in the relative prices of treatments and higher doctors’ wages and tobacco prices.
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