Chinese digital economy VCG/Getty Images

China’s New Digital Dividend

Despite current concerns about China's corporate-debt crisis, rapid digitization is transforming the Chinese economy, and elevating its place in the global value chain. But China's ongoing transition is as risky as it is exciting, because no economy so large has undergone such rapid, far-reaching change.

HONG KONG – Over the past four decades, China has gone from being a low-wage supplier to one of the three most important links in the global value chain, alongside the United States and Germany. Despite growing concerns about China’s corporate debt – which is now close to 170% of GDP – and its ability to escape the middle-income trap, rapid digitization will allow the Chinese economy to continue moving up the value chain.

Following its strategic “opening up” almost 40 years ago, China provided an abundant source of cheap land and labor, which enabled it to achieve economies of scale in consumer manufacturing. Then, as China moved toward middle-income status, it became a major consumer market in itself.

In 2012, China’s current leaders recognized that the country’s “demographic dividend” had run its course: the Chinese economy was reaching its “Lewis turning point,” the stage at which its surplus labor supply would be exhausted, and wages would start to rise. And, at the same time, the “opening-up dividend” was also reaching maturity, and encountering protectionist barriers around the world.