For over thirty years, China’s economy has been a disruptive and powerful force in the global economy. Now, China’s newly minted leadership has the challenge of managing this powerful economy as it shows signs of tiring. Problems of high inflation, rising property values, and a high level of bad government debt all threaten to throw China’s economy off track. Further privatization has been accepted as a way to combat these challenges, particularly in opening up government project contracts previously offered exclusively held by state-owned enterprises to the private sector. To really ensure effective privatization, China must develop a culture of innovation that gives Chinese people more ownership over the direction of this giant economy.
China’s education system is a significant barrier to innovation. Unlike in the United States, where education involves a healthy mix of in-class testing and extra-curricular activity, China’s education system is almost 100% based on test scores. From primary school all the way through to high school graduation, Chinese students are preparing for the gaokao, a written test that each student takes after completing high school that will determine their collegiate path. It is a high-pressure system that forces students to focus on test scores and numbers, and does not foster creative thought.
Even more constraining is the strong divide between social classes. This is not the first time in China’s history that the leadership has made sweeping statements about reforms in China’s economy. The question is, will people believe that they will become a reality? China is divided into three basic classes – laobaixing (common people), fuerdai (the rich), and tanerdai (government officials and colleagues). These differences are so pronounced that it is hard for Chinese people to imagine any reforms that would change their relative position within this system.
These two aspects of Chinese society deter innovation, evidenced by a marked increase in dissatisfaction by average Chinese citizens in this economy, and an exodus of China’s rich, would-be innovative class.
Since moving to Beijing in 2011, I’ve witnessed the attitudes of average Chinese people go through a steady change. For common people, pride and excitement in China’s economic growth are gradually being replaced with disappointment and resentment. Last week, I had a cab driver ask me if the U.S. would consider liberating China instead of Syria. Why?
“This country is completely unfair. This country gets richer and richer, but I work harder and harder, and make less money.”
This change in attitude is growing along with divide between rich and poor. The government understands the severity of the problem. In January they released the official Gini Coefficient, which measures income disparity within an economy, for the first time since 2005. The Chinese claim that the number sits at .474, though a majority of independent assessments from scholars put the number over .6. Both numbers are over 0.4, which is considered a standard breaking point at which society as a whole starts to turn from generally satisfied to generally unsatisfied.
These statistics play out in China’s cities where working class citizens and migrants work and live in close proximity to the wealthy and powerful. Last year it was announced that over 51% of China’s population lives in urban areas, and China expects to enact plans to make that number increase to 70% by 2025. Unfortunately, with limited education and poor platforms for social mobility, the cities are being filled more and more with people that are not in a position to offer innovative value to a society that needs it.
At the same time that migrants and low-educated people are growing their presence in China’s economic hubs, certain habits of the educated and wealthy indicate a need to create incentives for innovation.
One of these habits is emigration. In a 2011 survey of Chinese citizens with net worth of over 10 million RMB ($1.53 million), it was discovered that over 60% said that they were considering emigrating from China. The survey, developed collectively by Bain and Company and China Merchants Bank, shows that the wealthy in China are either not sure about the trajectory of China’s future, or that they are just generally dissatisfied. One thing is clear is that they are not willing to stick around to spend time investing and innovating in the Chinese economy.
In China’s new era of privatization, the leadership should frame the reforms around giving average Chinese people incentives and resources to “dare to dream.” They will find ample opportunities as they start to open contracts previously held exclusively by state-owned enterprises to private companies. These large contracts should be given not just to those with government relationships, but those that demonstrate that they can give the best performances. Over time, this will provide evidence to Chinese people that society is indeed changing, and that taking a more entrepreneurial path could be an acceptable track to achieving a better life in China. Eventually, this will give the government teeth to actually reform the gaokao-based curriculum and encourage a balanced education system that gives Chinese people the incentives to think outside of the box. This is how to create a healthy economy that depends on and fosters innovation within its people.
Dan Redford is the Director of China Operations for FirstPathway Partners, and industry leading EB5 immigration fund manager. He also serves as the President of the Michigan State University Beijing Alumni Club. You can follow him and his perspectives from China at http://www.danredford.com.