China’s Next Transformation

HONG KONG – During three decades of favorable global economic conditions, China created an integrated global production system unprecedented in scale and complexity. But now its policymakers must deal with the triple challenges of the unfolding European debt crisis, slow recovery in the United States, and a secular growth slowdown in China’s economy. All three challenges are interconnected, and mistakes by any of the parties could plunge the global economy into another recession.

To assess the risks and options for China and the world, one must understand China’s “Made in the World” production system, which rests on four distinct but mutually dependent pillars.

The first of these pillars, the China-based “world factory,” was largely created by foreign multinational corporations and their associated suppliers and subcontractors, with labor-intensive processing and assembly carried out by small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) that have direct access to global markets through a complex web of contracts. Starting modestly in coastal areas and special economic zones, the “world factory” supply chain has spread throughout China, producing everything from stuffed animals to iPads.

The “world factory” could not have been built without the second pillar: the “China infrastructure network,” installed and operated mostly by vertically integrated state-owned enterprises in logistics, energy, roads, telecoms, shipping, and ports. This pillar relies heavily on planning, large-scale fixed investment, and administrative controls, and its quality, scale, and relative efficiency were strategic to Chinese competitiveness and productivity.