China’s economy had a mixed performance in 2023, with growth driven by the high-tech and services sectors, but challenges arising from declining property investment, debt risk, and weak consumption growth.
Long-term structural reforms and a focus on technology and innovation are needed to address these issues. However, volatile external conditions and an ageing population mean that these challenges cannot be quickly resolved.
- China’s economy in 2023 experienced bumpy growth, with fluctuations in GDP performance across the four quarters.
- The challenges facing China’s economy include declining property investment, accumulating debt risk, and weak consumption growth, posing downside risks to future growth.
- The government’s focus on innovation and sustainability, along with the need for structural reforms to address household confidence and social security deficiencies, reflect the complex challenges ahead for China’s economy.
In 2023, China’s economy experienced fluctuations. After surpassing expectations with a 4.5% growth in the first quarter following strict COVID-19 prevention measures, China fell short of market expectations with a 6.3% GDP growth in the second quarter.
Despite initial pessimism, the GDP grew by 4.9% in the third quarter, exceeding expectations once again. The fourth quarter saw a 5.2% GDP growth, marking China’s annual growth rate for 2023.
In 2023, the services sector gained significant momentum, driven by increased consumer and business demand as China removed COVID-19 restrictions. The services sector contributed 5.8 per cent to national economic growth, outperforming agricultural and industrial production.
Despite these robust economic performances, China’s economy faces significant challenges including declining property investment, accumulating debt risk and weak consumption growth, all of which pose downside risks to China’s growth trajectory in the near term.
The contraction in the property market is not new. It stems from a series of policy crackdowns that started in late 2020, notably the ‘Three Red Lines’ policy designed to mitigate substantial risks among the many property developers with mounting debt. Beijing has since repeatedly emphasised that housing is for living in, not for speculation, reaffirming its determination to control risks in the housing market.
Despite the continuing decline in residential investment, the real estate sector showed signs of recovery in 2023 thanks to more conducive policies. In January 2023 the government announced a 21-point plan to improve the balance sheets of high-quality property developers. Beijing also eased mortgage policies and relaxed requirements for first home buyers to boost buyer confidence. Rapid property market expansion might be gone, but a smaller market with better developers and closer government oversight is likely the future.
Local governments in China have been grappling with high levels of debt, posing another potential catalyst for a debt crisis. The debt distress was particularly concerning in 2023 due to slower-than-expected economic recovery in some regions and a prolonged downturn in the property market. In some provinces, these two factors hampered their governments’ ability to service their debts.
Jiao Wang is Research Fellow at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic & Social Research, University of Melbourne.
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