The corona conundrum in China

14:32 by Hubert Fromlet, Kalmar

Frågor om Kinas corona-återhämtning


Sammanfattning på svenska / summary in Swedish 

Kommunikation från det officiella Kina har tveklöst präglats av påtagliga brister vid en historisk tillbakablick. Själv har jag uppmärksammat detta problem framför allt vid BNP-analyser. Min slutsats var vid upprepade tillfällen att denna historiska malus kan hänga kvar under ansenlig tid även när kommunikation och statistisk kvalitet verkligen förbättrats. Därför verkar det svårt att aktuellt kunna bedöma lätt optimistiska kinesiska ställningstaganden kring coronaviruset. Jag har en del historiskt betingade tvivel. Förhoppningsvis har jag fel, för Kinas och hela världens skull.


English version

“It’s only make believe” was one the nicest songs in the 1960s, performed by the British popstar Billy Fury. This song came into my mind this morning when I started my readings and reflections on the Chinese economy. Is it really only make believe when it comes to Chinese reports on the corona virus and the described strong return to work and production?

Of course, I wished it were so – for the sake of China itself and the rest of the world. However, I still have – right or wrong – a serious trust problem when looking at current statistics and comments from China. This is a trust problem mainly based on historical experience. At different occasions, I have been pointing in the past at the risk that, for example, China’s obvious long-lasting shortcomings in GDP-statistics will make it difficult to recognize or appreciate really achieved progress in communication and statistical reporting.

The return to work and production

Chinese media report these days more and more about a sizeable and strong supply chain recovery. This is an area all neutral external and/or foreign observers cannot have a distinct opinion on. Hopefully, this is the case. However, such a phenomenon still would not say anything about future production plans. Demand itself from many countries still may be alive right now but may be shrinking onward because of more dampened or reduced growth in many countries.

The enormous and sudden drop of new corona cases

Currently, China has around 81 000 reported corona-infected people. Almost 69 000 are statistically totally recovered This is the highest share among the most strongly affected countries as far as I can note – but I cannot have a strong opinion on this issue since China was the first affected country. What surprises me more are the extremely low numbers of new corana cases in China. I really do not know what conclusion on this number may be appropriate.

Avoidance of a recession – still a realistic scenario?

Hope of a visible recovery later this year is still alive in China – not only in official statements. But I really wonder what official GDP statistics will show for the first and second quarter. Indicators for the first quarter are indeed worrying. In February, the PMI has dropped dramatically. So did, for example, retail sales (minus 20.5 % yoy in Jan-Feb), fixed investments (minus 24.5 % yoy in Jan-Feb), and industrial production (minus13.5 % yoy Jan-Feb) – a crash also when considering the special circumstances.

My impression is that China’s GDP development in the first quarter 2020 in both real terms and in reality was in negative territory (somewhere between a slight or a more recognizable minus). I emphasize the chosen word of “impression” because it is really impossible to be more precise right now.

For the first time since quite some time it has become hard to make a forecast on Chinese quarterly GDP growth. Do Chinese decision-makers prefer an understandable major drop in order to praise a possible sizeable recovery later on – or do they prefer a more even growth development downward as they did in the past? Or a position somewhere in between – which actually is my view?

Summary: Altogther, there is no doubt that the official China will do everything to show that the economy is on the right track again when the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Communist Party will be celebrated in 2021. However: to make this really credible, recognizable progress should be visible also at the end of this celebrated century, i.e. by the end of this year!

Back to Billy Fury: It is not only make believe anymore…

Hubert Fromlet
Affiliate Professor at the School of Business and Economics, Linnaeus University
Editorial board


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