How Technology Saved China’s Economy

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The New York Times | | Jan 20, 2020

Driverless delivery bot in China - How Technology Saved China’s EconomyTo outsiders, China may seem like a surveillance state. But tech has fueled growth and helped stave off recession.

Landing in Shanghai recently, I found myself in the middle of a tech revolution remarkable in its sweep. The passport scanner automatically addresses visitors in their native tongues. Digital payment apps have replaced cash. Outsiders trying to use paper money get blank stares from store clerks.

Nearby in the city of Hangzhou a prototype hotel called FlyZoo uses facial recognition to open doors, no keys required. Robots mix cocktails and provide room service. Farther south in Shenzhen, we flew the same drones that are already making e-commerce deliveries in rural China. Downtown traffic flowed smoothly, guided by synced stoplights and restrained by police cameras.

Outside China, these technologies are seen as harbingers of an “automated authoritarianism,” using video cameras and facial recognition systems to thwart lawbreakers and a “citizen score” to rank citizens for political reliability. An advanced version has been deployed to counter unrest among Muslim Uighurs in the inland region of Xinjiang. But in China as a whole, surveys show that trust in technology is high, concern about privacy low. If people fear Big Brother, they keep it to themselves. In our travels along the coast, many expressed pride in China’s sudden rise as a tech power.

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China initiated its economic miracle by opening to the outside world, but now it is nurturing domestic tech giants by barring outside competition. Foreign visitors cannot open Google or Facebook, a weirdly isolating experience, and the trade deal announced Wednesday by President Trump defers discussion of those barriers.

But unlike the Soviet Union, which failed in a similar strategy, China is effectively creating a new consumer culture behind protectionist walls as a tool of political control and an engine of economic growth.

It comes at a crucial moment. Flash back to 2015, when China appeared to be on the verge of the first recession since it began reforming the economy, four decades ago. China’s average income had reached the middle-class phase when developing economies often stagnate. Its working-age population had just started to shrink. Runaway lending, unleashed by Beijing to fight off the global recession of 2008, had pushed private debts to 230 percent of gross domestic product, up from 150 percent.

This was the largest borrowing spree ever in the emerging world, and binges that size had always led to major downturns. But while China’s growth has slowed, according to official numbers, from double digits in 2010 to barely 6 percent, it has yet to suffer its first recession.

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What changed was the unexpectedly rapid rise of a new digital economy, now estimated at more than $3 trillion, or a third of national output. Anchored by internet giants such as Alibaba and Tencent, the tech sector was not only counterbalancing the decline in older industries such as steel and aluminum but was also largely debt free. So the bigger the digital economy, the greater China’s capacity to manage mounting debts in the old economy and keep growth alive.

By 2017, tech already accounted for as large a share of output in China as in Germany. A Tufts University survey ranked China the most rapidly evolving digital economy in the world. And the chief executive of Visa quoted a Beijing regulator saying that some 18 months earlier, the nation’s tech giants “were way too small to worry about, and now they’re way too big to do anything about.”

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share save 171 16 - How Technology Saved China’s Economy