If policymakers and financial markets outside the Swiss alps are concerned about China’s economic outlook, those worries were missing from a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos. While delegates to the meeting of the rich and powerful surfaced a host of challenges facing China’s new leadership later this year, the pace of growth wasn’t one of them.
The panel talked about political cronyism, pollution, and the need for a more robust safety net for migrant workers. But there wasn’t any talk of crisis or hard landing. Despite the fact that China is still very export dependent, defenders and critics at this session betrayed no concern about the impact that the euro crisis and slow U.S. growth could have on the Asian powerhouse.
Many economists expect China to grow at 8 percent or more this year, slowing from 9.2 percent in 2011, as authorities seek to avert inflation and ensure more sustainable expansion. China is comforted by having the world’s biggest foreign reserves, which lets it cope with weaker demand for its products. Li Daokui, Director of the Center for China in the World Economy in Beijing, and an advisor to the Chinese central bank, is sticking to his 8.5 percent growth projection this year and insists the economy, the world’s second largest, will grow by “at least 8 percent” in 2013.
Stephen Roach, Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and senior research fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University, shared the optimism. The current five-year Chinese plan will be a “watershed”, he said. The shift from investment and exports to consumption leaves him positive further out into the future. “China has demonstrated it’s up to the task.”
Perhaps the biggest concern among panel members is the need to develop a safety net that can support the masses of migrant workers who head for China’s cities, struggling to make ends meet, and maintain social peace. Housing has been expensive, leading to a bubble, and rental costs are dear. Roach dismissed talk of ghost towns. He recalled Shanghai in the 1990s, relatively empty then, booming today. “Ghost towns are built in anticipation of the people who come.” Housing has spooked the markets. “They’re expecting the worst,” he said. “They will be pleasantly surprised.”