Sat, Aug 26, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Is the Chinese economy headed for a meltdown?

Many analysts believe that growth in China is out of control and that the authorities in Beijing must act soon before it takes a mighty fall

By Jonathan Watts and Larry Elliott  /  THE GUARDIAN , BEIJING AND LONDON

Few views of China's spectacular economic growth could be more impressive than the one offered by the property company Tomson Riviera in Shanghai. From the top floor of its sleek, luxury apartment blocks in the Pudong development zone, you can, say the brochures, look out across the Huangpu river at one of the world's most futuristic skylines.

The panorama does not come cheap. At 180 million yuan (US$22 million) for a penthouse, this is the most exclusive residential complex in the country. Unfortunately for the developers, it is also the emptiest.

Since it opened in October last year, the waterfront development has failed to attract a single buyer for any of its 74 apartments. The situation is so desperate that Tomson has decided to put a second block out to global public tender.

Even so, the price is unlikely to rise for several years. Analysts blame an optimistic initial valuation of US$15,500 peer square meter. Others point to a housing market swamped with swanky apartment blocks and luxury villas. In a single week last month, residential prices in Shanghai fell 10 percent.

But there is another, darker explanation doing the rounds: that Tomson Riviera is the victim of a Chinese economy that is out of control. Unbalanced, overheated and wobbling on the shaky foundations of a debt-ridden banking system, the economy, say some doom-mongers, is heading for a fall.

It is not the first time such predictions have been heard. Since the start of the opening and reform policy in 1978, pessimists have intermittently warned that an average annual growth rate of 9 percent was unsustainable and would end in collapse. So far they have been wrong. China has not only maintained stable growth, it is accelerating.

On Tuesday, government figures revealed that the number of mobile phone customers in the country, already the world's biggest telecoms market, had grown to more than 431 million in the past year, up 45 percent.

But how fast is too fast? The question is once again being asked, and not just by the perennial pessimists. In a survey published last month in the respected Caijing magazine, 56 percent of Chinese economists saw signs of overheating, up from 15 percent in April.

After the latest quarterly GDP figures revealed an 11.3 percent surge, even President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), who usually avoids economics, joined the fray. He warned of tough measures, including credit curbs and restrictions on land development, to "restrain blind growth in high energy-consuming and polluting industries." After being fixed for a decade, interest rates have been raised three times in a year, albeit slowly, to cool the economy.

But although the Chinese economy is growing more than twice as fast as Japan's did during its "bubble" heyday in the late 1980s, Beijing's problem is one of balance more than speed. Developing countries tend to grow rapidly as they catch up with rich countries. With a huge population that is still extremely poor by global standards, China has plenty of ground to make up.

China is unusual in many ways. It is the largest ever developing country; it is the largest country to make the transition from a command economy to a market. It is also ageing fast, and lastly it exports capital to the rest of the world rather than importing it. Where it is similar to other developing economies in the past is that there are distinct signs of overinvestment and wasted resources on a colossal scale.

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