Jim Rickards: Is China A Rising Giant Or A Paper Tiger?

Hard evidence suggests China is a house of cards preparing to implode…

by Jim Rickards via Daily Reckoning

China’s shock currency devaluation last week begs the following questions: Is China a rising giant of the twenty-first century poised to overtake the United States in wealth and military prowess? Or is it a house of cards preparing to implode?

Conventional wisdom espouses the former. Yet, hard evidence suggests the latter.

Your correspondent in the world famous Long Bar on the Bund in Shanghai, China. The Long Bar (about 50-yards long) was originally built in 1911 during the heyday of foreign imperialism in China just before the formation of the Republic of China (1912-1949). Bar regulars were divided into “tai-pans” (bosses who sat near the window), “Shanghailanders” (who sat in the middle), and “griffins” (newcomers who sat at the far end).

I made my first visits to Hong Kong and Taiwan in 1981 and my first visit to Communist China in 1991. I have made many visits to the mainland over the past twenty years and have been careful to move beyond Beijing (the political capital) and Shanghai (the financial capital) on these trips. My visits have included Chongqing, Wuhan, Xian, Nanjing, new construction sites to visit “ghost cities,” and trips to the agrarian countryside.

I spent five days cruising on the Yangtze River before the Three Gorges Dam was finished so I could appreciate the majesty and history of the gorges before the water level was lifted by the dam. I have visited numerous museums and tombs both excavated and unexcavated.

My trips included meetings with government and Communist Party officials and numerous conversations with everyday Chinese people, some of who just wanted to practice their English language skills on a foreign visitor.

In short, my experience with China goes well beyond media outlets and talking heads. In my extensive trips around the world, I have consistently found that first-hand visits and conversations provide insights that no amount of expert analysis can supply.

These trips have been supplemented by reading an extensive number of books on the history, culture and politics of China from 3,000 BC to the present. This background gives me a much broader perspective on current developments in China and a more acute analytical frame for interpretation.

An objective analysis of China must begin with its enormous strengths. China has the largest population in the world, about 1.4 billion people (although soon to be overtaken by India). China has the third largest territory in the world, 3.7 million square miles, that’s just slightly larger than the United States (3.6 million square miles), and only slightly behind Canada (3.8 million square miles).

China also has the fifth largest nuclear arsenal in the world with 280 nuclear warheads, about the same as the UK and France, but well behind Russia (6,490) and the U.S. (6,450). China is the largest gold producer in the world at about 500 metric tonnes per year.

China has the second largest economy in the world at $15.5 trillion in GDP, behind the U.S. with $21.4 trillion, and well ahead of number three Japan with $5.4 trillion. China’s foreign exchange reserves (including gold) are the largest in the world at $3.2 trillion (Hong Kong separately has $425 billion in additional reserves).

By way of contrast, the number two reserve holder, Japan, has only $1.3 trillion in reserves. By these diverse measures of population, territory, military strength and economic output, China is clearly a global super-power and the dominant presence in East Asia.

Yet, these blockbuster statistics hide as much as they reveal. China’s per capita income is only $11,000 per person compared to per capita income of $65,000 in the United States. Put differently, the U.S. is only 38% richer than China on a gross basis, but it is 500% richer than China on a per capita basis.

China’s military is growing stronger and more sophisticated, but it still bears no comparison to the U.S. military when it comes to aircraft carriers, nuclear warheads, submarines, fighter aircraft and strategic bombers.

Most importantly, at $11,000 per capita GDP, China is stuck squarely in the “middle income trap” as defined by development economists. The path from low income (about $5,000 per capita) to middle-income (about $10,000 per capita) is fairly straightforward and mostly involves reduced corruption, direct foreign investment and migration from the countryside to cities to purse assembly-style jobs.

The path from middle-income to high-income (about $20,000 per capita) is much more difficult and involves creation and deployment of high-technology and manufacture of high-value-added goods.

Among developing economies (excluding oil producers), only Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea have successfully made this transition since World War II. All other developing economies in Latin America, Africa, South Asia and the Middle East including giants such as Brazil and Turkey remain stuck in the middle-income ranks.

China remains reliant on assembly-style jobs and has shown no promise of breaking into the high-income ranks.