Looking back over a generation, we’ve witnessed the rise and rise of China, and its subsequent collapse. For four decades, China was seemingly unstoppable, adopting urbanization and market principles and tech innovation. Almost a billion people were hauled out of poverty in rural villages and inserted into the industrial economy of China’s teeming cities.
At one point, China was second only to the United States, and poised to overtake it as the biggest economic gorilla on the global stage. Then the government blinked, and began to rein in the financial and civil freedoms that had created the Chinese miracle. Prosperity for all and social harmony was all well and good, but not at the cost of losing control. Tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent were quickly brought to heel.
At the same time, China began to suffer the consequences of its own success. Workers were no longer prepared to follow the ‘996’ rule – 9am to 9pm 6 days a week – despite higher salaries. The authorities promptly outlawed onerous contracts, to protect workers; which left China with another emerging crisis – not enough workers, and not enough babies to replace them in the future.
In 2022 the climate chickens came home to roost, and China had no option but to start cutting back on coal, and curbing carbon emissions, at the very time pent-up demand was sending energy prices soaring. Despite building out solar and nuclear power at an incredible pace, China’s voracious heavy industries demanded more, if they were to continue being the world’s factory at the lowest price. But China’s international ambitions compelled them to agree to emissions targets and carbon reductions, exacerbating the energy crunch.
Meanwhile, the population continued to age and decline, despite the introduction of a ‘three-child policy’ and government incentives for bigger families and more leisure time. Having become accustomed to more money and fewer children, China’s middle class was firmly committed to that lifestyle. Three decades later, and the population has dropped to 890 million, less than two-thirds of its former peak.
Don’t think China’s perfect storm has left the rest of the world unscathed either. Supply shortages, falling prices for commodities, and shrinking markets for imports and luxury goods have battered western economies. When China falls, so do we all.