One-armed fighter 独臂战士
China is almost back to its pre-pandemic growth trajectory
“THE EIGHT HUNDRED” is an unusual Chinese film for its depiction of Nationalist soldiers as heroes in a grinding battle against Japanese invaders in 1937. The Nationalists, or Kuomintang, fought a long on-off civil war against the Communist Party and so are typically portrayed as villains and stooges on Chinese screens. From a global perspective, the film is unusual for a different reason. It is that rarest of things in these covid-clouded times: a box-office hit. Released over a month ago, it has pulled in just over 3bn yuan ($440m), propelling Chinese cinemas to their best showing by far since January, when the country went into near-total lockdown.
Many of China’s factories reopened as early as February, but it is only now, nearly eight months on, that the broader economy is approaching its normal trajectory. Based on a batch of activity data published on September 15th, China is on track to expand by roughly 5% in the third quarter compared with a year earlier, a smidgen below the 6% growth rate that it reported in the second half of 2019, before covid-19 erupted. That puts it well ahead of all other big economies in the scale of its recovery.
But the shape of China’s recovery is unbalanced. The supply side of the economy had a head start over the demand side, and has maintained a big lead. Industrial output rose by 5.6% year-on-year in August, while retail sales rose by just 0.5%. A range of alternative measures underline this gap. Power generation rose strongly in August thanks in part to resilient factory activity. The number of underground journeys, by contrast, levelled off at about a tenth below normal, indicating that some people are still wary of venturing into crowded places (see chart). Some analysts worry that these imbalances are spilling into the global economy as excess production ends up abroad. China’s share of world merchandise exports hit a record high of more than 13% in the second quarter, according to data from CPB World Trade Monitor.
但中国经济复苏的形态并不均衡：供给先行，需求落后，而且一直保持着较大差距。8月，工业产值同比增长5.6％，而零售额仅增长0.5％。一系列替代指标也突显出这一差距。8月的发电量增长强劲，部分原因是工厂生产迅速恢复。相比之下，地铁客流量仍停留在比正常情况低十分之一的水平，表明部分民众对于冒险进入拥挤的场所仍心存警惕（见图表）。一些分析师担心，随着过剩产出最终流向国外，这些失衡也溢出到全球经济中。据荷兰经济政策分析局世界贸易监测（CPB World Trade Monitor）的数据，今年第二季度，中国占全球商品出口的比例创下新高，超过了13％。
A key question is thus whether the uneven growth is simply the ephemera of the covid-19 economy or whether it points to a more fundamental problem. The answer is probably a bit of both. Weak consumer spending has long been a feature of China’s economy. Household consumption was just 39% of GDP last year, well below the global average of 63%. The pandemic has shone a harsh light on one explanation: a threadbare social safety-net. During the depths of China’s lockdown, just 3% of the roughly 80m people without jobs collected unemployment insurance. As low-income earners have a higher propensity to spend, the lack of support weighs on consumption more generally.
Some of the extreme unevenness of the recovery will not last, however. The government prioritised reopening factories over restarting the rest of the economy because of its calculations about how to control the pandemic. That was the right call. It is easier to maintain strict health protocols in factories, which can be managed as semi-closed environments, than in shopping malls, where people come and go.
但复苏中的某些极端不平衡现象不会持续下去。中国政府以工厂复工为先，重启其他经济部门为次，是出于控制疫情的考虑。这是正确的决策。工厂可以按半封闭环境管理，在那里保持严格的防疫措施要比在人来人往的大型购物中心容易得多。 Encouragingly, a closer look at the data for August suggests that China’s consumers may be starting to close the gap with its producers. In month-on-month terms, retail sales grew a little more quickly than industrial output—the first such outperformance in half a year. The demand rebound would be even stronger except for the social-distancing rules still in place. Cinemas, for example, can sell tickets for only half their seats. “The Eight Hundred” is climbing the box-office charts with one arm tied behind its back.