Recently, it seems no developing country is safe from sudden, unexpected protests. In Brazil and Turkey, empowered middle classes pushed back against perceived governmental injustice; protests erupted, and leaders’ approval ratings dropped precipitously. In Egypt, the economic picture was as ugly as the political one, and the military’s ouster of President Mursi has fomented conflict and instability.
China may look like a candidate for the type of protests currently sweeping the developing world. Not only is a newly empowered middle class demanding better services and more accountability from government — growth has also tapered off in recent quarters. Don’t hold your breath. At least for the time being, China is well-positioned to navigate such challenges far better than its emerging market competitors.
Let’s start with the economy. For years pundits, and many Chinese government officials, thought that if China’s GDP growth rate ever fell below 8 percent, it would set off an unemployment crisis that would raise the risk of social and political instability in the country. Well, China’s finance minister was in Washington last week and said that the Chinese economy could handle 7 percent or even 6.5 percent growth — a lower rate than China has experienced in 23 years.
But unlike many other emerging markets, China views slower growth as a manageable challenge. The government actually recognizes that a slowdown is necessary to meet its reform and rebalancing goals, and is working now to score political points among the population by arguing that it’s doing so. In particular, Beijing hopes that the slowdown will force industrial consolidation and less resource consumption, which could slow environmental degradation — which has been a major point of political vulnerability for the government. Slower growth should also calm the real estate sector, where rising prices have been a major sore point for urban Chinese. China’s new leadership is betting that progress on these fronts will outweigh the downside risks they’ll face as job losses tick up in the face of slower growth.
From a global perspective, there is a strong case to be made that China’s slowing growth rate is actually a good sign. The fact that Beijing hasn’t just reflexively pumped capital into the system to keep growth rates up shows that it is willing to begin undertaking modest economic reforms; it is, in effect, letting bubbles shrink rather than grow until they pop. This approach is characteristic of the new leadership that took charge in March of this year: they are less risk averse and they have a more long-sighted handle on the necessary economic changes that China will have to undertake.