After a three-week tour of China, there probably isn’t much that I can say that hasn’t already been said about the world’s third largest country by area and largest by population with 1.3 billion people. Nevertheless, here are a few observations, which can hardly do justice to explain today’s China . . .
We expected to be awed by China’s past – Great Wall, Terra Cotta warriors, Forbidden City, etc. – and we were. But what was perhaps more impressive to our tour group was China’s present – Three Gorges dam project, new cities, new high-rise apartment/condo buildings, new bridges, new highways . . . It is almost impossible to imagine or comprehend the growth and construction every place we visited in China unless you actually see it first-hand.
While many of China’s famous sites are ancient, much of China is new, built within the last 15 years or so and much of that since 2000. One account I read said that in Shanghai alone, a new building of 30 stories or more had been completed every 12 days for the last six years. That’s just one city of 18 million people, and there are many cities with millions of people throughout China. New York and Chicago almost look like small towns compared to China’s major cities.
It would be hard to over-estimate how much emphasis China is putting on the 2008 Olympics in Beijing or the 2010 World Exposition in Shanghei as a way to show off the country. Facilities being built look fantastic, and Beijing’s famed pollution will be under control by edict, at least for the Games. Tourism is viewed as a major growing “industry” everywhere we went in China.
All of the new infrastructure helps to explain China’s massive appetite for concrete, steel, copper and other building materials. Judging by the number of building sites and cranes, which far surpasses what we saw in Miami’s condo craze a year ago, China’s demand for these materials won’t ease up soon. We can’t verify the quality of the building or whether these new projects will hold up in 20 years, but China’s infrastructure buildup far exceeds anything in the United States.
A number of the high-rises that appear to be near completion aren’t occupied yet. China is relocating some 4 million people in connection with the Three Gorges project alone, and millions more are being shifted from rural to urban settings. Like the pick and ax and food suppliers in the California gold rush, the best investment in China may be in companies that supply the plumbing, electrical, air conditioning and other facilities needed to equip these new homes.
Even with all of China’s recent advances, the tap water in all of the western-style hotels where we stayed is not potable. China still has some major water supply issues that it needs to resolve.
The 17th Communist Party of China Congress, which was taking place while we were there, continued to emphasize “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The Scientific Outlook on Development adopted by the Congress “signals the party’s determination to promote more coordinated development based on social harmony, environmental protection and energy conservation in addition to economic expansion,” the China Daily newspaper reported. Sounds somewhat like the political rhetoric we hear out of Washington, D.C.
Like the infrastructure, China’s political thinking and unique adaptation of communism are relatively new, developed since the generally acknowledged setback of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) that occurred before today’s generation of young people were born. The 1988 Tiananmen Square uprising and human rights issues have been brushed aside in this new era. The government is far from democratic, of course, but capitalism – with controls – seems to be firmly embedded, and Chinese leaders seem to realize they need to be more diligent to reduce lead paint in toys or tainted food incidences if they want to maintain or improve China’s status in the world trading community.
The U.S. system is predicated on individual rights, but the Chinese put up with a number of controls designed for the common good. Several examples: (1) The one-child policy remains in effect and is enforced by various economic means; (2) the Three Gorges dam provides flood control, electrical power and improved navigation on the Yangtze River for millions of people at the expense of other millions who must relocate to get out of the way of water that will continue to rise to its peak level in 2009; (3) no new motorcycles can be sold in Beijing due to pollution so don’t buy a motorcycle franchise there; (4) you can buy a car in Shanghai but a license plate cost more than the car in an effort to limit the number of cars on the roads; (5) travel outside of China is very difficult for most Chinese citizens due to large deposits required to leave the country.
Even with those limitations and others, General Secretary Hu Jintao and his Central Committee seem to be widely accepted and in no danger of losing their positions or being forced to change their policies due to domestic unrest. Only a small percentage of the population belongs to the Communist Party, and Chinese citizens going about their day-to-day activities don’t seem to pay much more attention to what happens politically in Beijing than U.S. citizens do to what happens in the U.S. capital.
With gross domestic product maintaining a growth rate of more than 11%, an inflation rate above 6% in August and September and ongoing record trade surpluses, China’s economy and stock market continue to boom. Although Chinese citizens cannot buy many stocks yet, the “bubble” is a topic of conversation. How long will it last? Let the stock market run higher into 2008, then sell at the top ahead of the Olympics, several suggested, even as the highly regarded Warren Buffet on his own trip to China in October was warning investors to be cautious about Chinese stocks and was selling his holdings in Petrochina.
One of the hot stocks is China Mobile, which has stores everywhere we visited. Cell phones and telecoms are big business in China with a lot more potential customers. China Mobile was at 50 in August and had reached 80 by early October when our tour began – seemingly too late to buy. But by late October when the tour ended, China Mobile had advanced further to above 100, doubling in a little over two months. Why didn’t we own it?
Television programming is tightly controlled in China, with a lot of military and patriotic themes. But the Internet is another story, especially among young people. However, based on our experience in the hotels where we stayed, there is a lot of room for improvement in Internet speed and reliability. If it could avoid government interference, always a threat, this might be another great investment area.
One would hate to label anything a “sure thing,” but it’s easy to agree with commodity guru Jim Rogers’ recent comments that the value of the Chinese yuan has got to go higher. The yuan has edged higher against the U.S. dollar since being loosened from the peg to the dollar in 2005 and appears capable of becoming much stronger than its current parity rate of about 7.4745 yuan to the dollar. The rise is likely to remain quite controlled, but a weaker yuan doesn’t seem to be in the picture. I should have held onto more yuan than my pocket change.
In an effort to cool economic growth and speculative asset bubbles and react to foreign pressure to increase the value of the yuan, China has gradually increased interest rates and the balance that banks must have on hand, tightening the amount of money available for loans. That has barely had an effect on growth to date but has worked to the detriment of Chinese people who are now required to make larger down payments to purchase condos.