It is clear by now that China’s economy is set to slow in the years to come, although economists disagree about how much and for how long. Last year, the country’s GDP growth rate fell to 7.4 percent, the lowest in almost a quarter century, and many expect that figure to drop further in 2015. Plenty of countries struggle to grow at even this pace, but most don’t have to create hundreds of millions of jobs over the next decade, as China will. So understandably, some experts are skeptical about the country’s prospects. They argue that its production-fueled growth model is no longer tenable and warn, as the economist Paul Krugman did in 2013, that the country is “about to hit its Great Wall.” According to this view, the question is not whether the Chinese economy will crash but when.
Such thinking is misguided. China is not nearing the edge of a cliff; it is entering a new stage of development. Chinese President Xi Jinping has called this next phase of growth the “new normal,” a term that Mohamed El-Erian, the former CEO of the global investment firm PIMCO, famously used to describe the West’s painful economic recovery following the 2008 financial crisis. But Xi used the phrase to describe something different: a crucial rebalancing, one in which the country diversifies its economy, embraces a more sustainable level of growth, and distributes the benefits more evenly. The new normal is in its early stages now, but if Beijing manages to sustain it, China’s citizens can count on continued growth and material improvements in their quality of life. The rest of the world, meanwhile, can expect China to become further integrated into the global economy. The Chinese century is not at the beginning of the end; it is at the end of the beginning.
FOLLOWER TO LEADER
Understanding China’s new normal requires some historical context. As a latecomer to the modern economy, China has followed what one could call