Chinese Stock Bubble No Panacea for Low Wages

China increasingly finds its journey to capitalism to be difficult, all the more so since the government’s strategy of inflating a stock-market bubble has not worked better than it does elsewhere.

Although, thanks to increasing worker militancy, wages are rising in China, it does not appear that China’s leaders have made any real progress in tackling over-reliance on investment and a low level of consumption, while inequality continues to rise. Encouraging working people to throw money into Chinese stock markets — much of which was borrowed — isn’t a substitute for a strong social safety net and living wages.

The corporate media is grumbling that measures Beijing has taken to stabilize its stock markets amount to a backtracking on its commitments to capitalist markets, but China’s integration into the global economic system is hardly at risk. The ruling Communist Party made its goal of increasing integration quite clear two years ago, when it set its economic goals at the 18th Party Congress’ Third Plenum.

At the time, corporate-media writers were disappointed the party did not choose to become a pet of the International Monetary Fund, evidently unable to read beyond the self-congratulatory slogans the party issued about its leadership. The party stated firmly its continuing commitment to capitalism, but also that its ongoing adoption of markets would be gradual.

This was clear enough at the time: The party’s communiqué following the Plenum stated it “must closely revolve around the decisive function that the market has in allocating resources” and would “accelerate the construction of free trade zones.” Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, stressed that “The role of the market in China has officially switched from ‘basic’ to ‘decisive,’ and is key to understanding the reform agenda.” Earlier this month, President Xi Jinping reiterated this commitment:

“An important goal for China’s current economic reform is to enable the market to play the decisive role in resource allocation and make the government better play its role. That means we need to make good use of both the invisible hand and the visible hand. … To develop the capital market is a key goal of China’s reform, which will not change just because of current market fluctuations.”

When real estate cools, inflate a stock bubble

A rapid increase in debt and the petering out of a long real estate boom are two reasons said to be behind the inflation of a Chinese stock-market bubble. (A reversal of the order in the U.S., where a real estate bubble was inflated to counteract the burst of the 1990s stock bubble.) A McKinsey Global Institute study found that China’s total debt (corporate and all levels of government) quadrupled in seven years, reaching $28 trillion in mid-2014, a total nearly triple the country’s gross domestic product. The study says:

“Three developments are potentially worrisome: half of all loans are linked, directly or indirectly, to China’s overheated real-estate market; unregulated shadow banking accounts for nearly half of new lending; and the debt of many local governments is probably unsustainable.”

Arguing that the stock-market rally was “clearly sponsored by the Chinese government,” economist Alicia García-Herrero said the bubble was inflated to provide local banks and corporations with new sources of capital. But what goes up eventually comes down, a turn compounded by the high rate of borrowing that fueled stock purchases. There were two proximate causes of the crash, Ms. García-Herrero writes:

“First, there was a wave of profit taking after the Shanghai benchmark index broke through 5,000 in early June and doubts emerged about further easing from the [Chinese central bank]. At that very same moment, China’s securities regulator announced measures to cool down the market, which amounted to banning brokerage firms from providing unregulated margin funding to investors. This was more of a shock to the system than one might imagine, as margin financing in China is much larger than in other stock markets.”

The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index reached its peak on June 12 and has fallen by more than one-third since, wiping out about US$3.3 trillion of value. Apologists argue that the Shanghai Stock Market is still well above where it was as recently as mid-2014, which is true, but the current value of Chinese stocks aren’t so impressive when looked at in a longer time frame — the Shanghai Composite Index is today where it was in November 2010.

Beijing has taken a series of steps to stabilize Chinese stock markets, including halting initial public offerings, cuts to interest rates, directing national pension funds to buy stocks, and instituting a new rule that large shareholders and managers must not reduce their holdings for six months. Alleviating the stock-market crash appears to be seen by the party leadership as a necessity to dampen potential social unrest due to the massive borrowing by mom-and-pop investors encouraged by the government. A ninefold increase in margin lending by brokerage firms over the past two years fueled the bubble, according to The New York Times.

Devaluation in response to export slowdown

The summer’s stock-market crash coincides with signs that China’s economic growth may be slowing. Chinese exports and imports were both down sharply for July and August, and in response, Beijing intervened in foreign-exchange markets to force a small decline in the value of the renminbi. But that devaluation appears to have backfired as market pressure would have forced the value of the renminbi to continue falling, below China’s target, causing Chinese financial officials to further intervene to prop up the value of their currency.

Although right-wing politicians apparently believe China’s government sets the value of its currency by decree, in fact China (as do many other countries) has to spend considerable money to maintain its value to counter the force of currency speculators. The yen, euro, U.S. dollar and Swiss franc are among the currencies whose values have been pushed down at various times due to government spending. Countries that do not possess the reserves to do this are completely at the mercy of speculators.

China does have reserves, due to its large trade surpluses, and is believed by Bloomberg Business to have spent US$315 billion in the past 12 months propping up the renminbi. In August alone, China spent $94 billion to keep its currency from falling further in value.

OK, what does all this mean? The idea that China has built a wall that keeps out the world capitalist system simply isn’t so. China, in contrast to other developing countries, is big enough to set some of its own rules and push back against U.S. domination. But its integration into world markets means it is ultimately subject to the whims of those markets. Those are very real forces: Markets are not impartial, disinterested mechanisms sitting loftily in the clouds — they represent the aggregate collective interests of the world’s most powerful industrialists and financiers.

It is those interests that are behind the massive transfer of production to China and other low-wage countries. No enterprise is more responsible for this transfer than Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which leverages its size, innovation in computerizing its inventory and tight management of its suppliers to squeeze those suppliers. If a manufacturer wants to continue to have contracts to supply Wal-Mart, then it has no choice but to ship its operations overseas because it has no other way to meet Wal-Mart’s demands for ever lower prices.

Wal-Mart, although the most ruthless, is far from alone in this business practice. Apple Inc. accrues massive profits by contracting out its manufacturing to subcontractors. A 2010 paper by Yuqing Xing and Neal Detert found that Chinese workers are paid so little that they accounted for only $6.50 of the $168 total manufacturing cost of an iPhone. Of course iPhones cost a lot more than $168 — an extraordinary profit is generated for Apple executives and shareholders on the backs of Chinese workers.

By now, those Chinese workers earn more, although they still represent a minuscule cost against a gigantic profit. Wages have been increasing in China in recent years fast enough that wages doubled from 2009 to 2015. Yet inequality is rising in China; as measured by the gini co-efficient, the standard measure of inequality, the income gap has grown more there in the past two decades than in any other Asian country.

Chinese labor share of economy remains small

Thus, when measured against the overall economy, China’s workers are not really doing better. By one measure, a study by two University of Chicago business professors, the labor share of China’s gross domestic product was a woeful 36 percent in 2010, compared to 58 to 60 percent for Japan, the United States and Germany. That share was above 50 percent in the 1980s. (The trend of those percentages in each country is down.)

Another way of analyzing this is in household consumption: The share of household consumption in China’s gross domestic product in 2013 was 36 percent (this was the latest figure available), representing a continual decline from 47 percent in 2000. Household consumption in advanced capitalist countries tends to be between 58 and 72 percent of GDP. Finally, China’s capital investment remains extraordinarily large, accounting for 48 percent of GDP, far above what other countries spend and as high as it has been in the past.

China’s growth is still overly dependent on building infrastructure and exports, and despite still low wages production is already being transferred to other countries with still lower wages. The average factory worker in China earns $27.50 per day — pitiful by Northern standards, but much higher with the $8.60 in Indonesia and $6.70 in Vietnam. But higher wages are not distributed evenly in China. The minimum wage varies considerably among provinces and in six of the most important cities, the minimum wage is less than 30 percent of the average local wage even though Chinese law prescribes it should be at least 40 percent.

Although Chinese authorities often meet worker unrest with repression, concessions are also offered, enabling the increases in wages. Such unrest is growing more widespread: China Labour Bulletin reports that 1,642 strikes have taken place in China in 2015, more than all of last year. Strike totals are as follows:

1,642 strikes in 2015 (total reported as of September 22)
1,379 strikes in 2014
656 strikes in 2013
382 strikes in 2012
185 strikes in 2011

Alternative organizations are leading many of these struggles due to the lack of effective trade unions, the Bulletin reports:

“Labour rights groups, especially those in Guangdong, emerged to play the role a union should be playing, supporting workers in their struggle with management, helping them to conduct collective bargaining and maintaining unity and solidarity.”

What the future for China will largely depends on its working class’ ability to organize, a difficult task in the face of tightened repression. To what extent President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign really is an effort to root out corrupt “tigers and fleas” and to what extent it is a continuing purge — the “tigers” thus far are primarily associated with former President Hu Jintao — is difficult to know given the opacity of the party and the factions that contend within it. That the politically connected and coastal elites within China have become wealthy signals there is a powerful bloc within the party committed to the path it has taken since the Deng Xiaoping era.

Northern, and especially U.S., capitalists have profited well from China’s policies, too. Thus it behooves U.S. and Chinese working people, Northern and Southern workers, to recognize their common interests. Industrialists and financiers around the world are united in their neoliberal drive; we can only defend ourselves on an international basis.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog and has been an activist with several groups. His first book, It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, is available from Zero Books and he has completed the text for his second book, What Do We Need Bosses For?