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China’s Complexity Problem

NEW HAVEN – There are many moving parts in China’s daunting transition to what its leaders call a moderately well-off society. Tectonic shifts are occurring simultaneously on several fronts – the economy, financial markets, geopolitical strategy, and social policy. The ultimate test may well lie in managing the exceedingly complex interplay among these developments. Is China’s leadership up to the task, or has it bitten off too much at once?

Most Western commentators continue to over-simplify this debate, framing it in terms of the proverbial China hard-landing scenarios that have been off the mark for 20 years. In the wake of this summer’s stock-market plunge and surprising devaluation of the renminbi, the same thing is happening again. I suspect, however, that fears of an outright recession in China are vastly overblown.

While the debate about China’s near-term outlook should hardly be trivialized, the far bigger story is its economy’s solid progress on the road to rebalancing – namely, a structural shift away from manufacturing and construction activity toward services. In 2014, the services share of Chinese GDP hit 48.2%, well in excess of the combined 42.6% share of manufacturing and construction. And the gap is continuing to widen – services activity grew 8.4% year on year in the first half of 2015, far outstripping the 6.1% growth in manufacturing and construction.

Services are in many respects the infrastructure of a consumer society – in China’s case, providing the basic utilities, communications, retail outlets, health care, and finance that its emerging middle class is increasingly demanding. They are also labor-intensive: in China, services require about 30% more jobs per unit of output than do capital-intensive manufacturing and construction.