The global economic downturn, and efforts to reverse it, will probably make China an even stronger economic competitor than it was before the crisis.
China, the world’s third-largest economy behind the United States and Japan, had already become more assertive. Now it is exploiting its unusual position as a country with piles of cash and a strong banking system, at a time when many countries have neither, to acquire natural resources and make new friends.
Last week, China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, even reminded Washington that as one of the United States’ biggest creditors, China expects Washington to safeguard its investment.
China’s leaders are turning economic crisis to competitive advantage, said economic analysts.
The country is using its nearly $600 billion economic stimulus package to make its companies better able to compete in markets at home and abroad, to retrain migrant workers on an immense scale and to rapidly expand subsidies for research and development. Construction has already begun on new highways and rail lines that are likely to permanently reduce transportation costs.
And while American leaders struggle to revive lending — in the latest effort with a $15 billion program to help small businesses — Chinese banks lent more in the last three months than in the preceding 12 months.
“The recent tweaks to the stimulus package indicate a sharper focus on the long-term competitiveness of Chinese industry,” said Eswar S. Prasad, a former China division chief at the International Monetary Fund. “Higher expenditures on education and research and development, along with amounts already committed to infrastructure investment, will boost the economy’s productivity.”
The international economic slowdown is also doing some things that Chinese authorities had tried and failed to do for four years: slow inflation, reverse what had been an ever-growing dependence on exports and pop a real estate bubble before it could grow even bigger.
The recession in most of the large economies in the world is inflicting real pain here — causing a record plunge in Chinese exports, putting 20 million migrant workers from within China out of their jobs and raising the potential for increased and sustained social unrest. But as President Hu Jintao told the National People’s Congress last week, “Challenge and opportunity always come together — under certain conditions, one could be transformed into the other.”
To that end, Chinese companies are shopping for foreign businesses to acquire. The commerce ministry is leading a delegation of corporate executives to Europe for the ministry’s first mergers and acquisitions trip; the executives are looking at companies in the automotive, textiles, food, energy, machinery, electronics and environmental protection sectors.
The government initiatives coincide with some immediate benefits of the slowdown for China. For instance, air freight and ocean shipping costs have plunged by as much as two-thirds since last summer as demand has fallen.