Like most other nations facing the pandemic, China had to confront not only the health risks but also the economic fallout. Localized lockdowns, a ban on cross-province travel, and strict stay-at-home mandates all took a toll on consumer spending and business activity, leading to China’s largest economic contraction since Mao Zedong held office.
To jumpstart economic growth, Beijing implemented an array of economic stimulus measures. These measures, characterized by tax reductions, state compensation schemes, and moratoriums on debt repayments, have helped craft China’s success in rebounding from the pandemic. However, its recovery has led to an early rollback of stimulus measures, leading some to question if this is perhaps premature and whether the move could expose China to potential adverse economic risk.
Economic Woes and the Pandemic
When COVID-19 first emerged in the city of Wuhan in late 2019, the months that followed brought a myriad of draconian measures to slow the spread of the virus within China. The drastic actions taken by authorities in Beijing saw more than half of the country locked down and the movement of Chinese citizens severely restricted. Naturally, these stringent measures had a substantive and dramatic effect on China’s economy and its capacity for growth.
Within the first three months of 2020, the Chinese economy contracted by about 6.8%. The contraction was spurred by a variety of economic calamities caused by the strict health measures put in place, and the initial shockwave of this sudden economic decline was primarily shouldered by the emerging lower-middle class. In particular, four major sectors were impacted: retail, real estate, food and beverage, and travel, with large segments of these workforces either furloughed or laid off. Together, these sectors made up nearly 43% of the Chinese workforce at the beginning of the pandemic.
Exports were another pillar of the Chinese economy that was severely impacted during the early spread of COVID-19. Unlike the 2008 financial crisis, Chinese suppliers are now even more integrated into the global supply chain. For example, China’s export sector was worth US$1.22 trillion in 2007 but had risen to a staggering US$2.5 trillion by 2019. A combination of strict lockdowns that prevented employees from working as well as a blanket drop in demand for traditional consumer goods from China left Beijing confronting an export industry that was operating far below capacity. As a result, exports sank 17% year-over-year in January and February 2020 and remained stagnant throughout the first half of the year.
These issues left Beijing with a monumental task: minimizing the health and human cost of the pandemic while simultaneously jumpstarting the world’s second largest economy. Policymakers and financial institutions collaborated across four major economic areas to slow the decline and reinvigorate the economy: taxes, employment, loans, and customs measures. Then, in February 2020, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) drafted a stimulus plan in accordance with these guidelines to usher in an early recovery for the Chinese economy.
Stimulus Measures and Economic Growth
The stimulus measures put in place by the PBOC signalled the first step towards economic recovery. Yet, with the lasting memory of the pressure that heavy-handed fiscal policy would place on the economy in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Beijing was weary to once again embrace significant stimulus. Opting out from more direct measures like paychecks to individuals, Beijing instead focused on policy-driven initiatives, such as tax exemptions, lending, and monetary policy, to spur economic activity.
One of the first areas of focus for Beijing was tax exemptions, with most measures targeted towards payroll taxes, personal income taxes, and import duty taxes. These efforts were mainly characterized by deferred employer social security contributions and relaxed restrictions for refunds of unemployment insurance. Another key effort was the tax exemption of imported materials donated free-of-charge for COVID-19 containment, thus allowing critical medical supplies to flow into China without cumbersome customs taxes. These tax-related stimulus measures provided much needed relief by easing the financial burdens for both the Chinese population as well as struggling businesses reeling from the unanticipated consequences of the pandemic.
Similar to the tax breaks, the employment measures sought to realign the Chinese economy with the rapidly changed operating environment. Poignantly, employment-related policy measures taken were characterized by a 1 trillion yuan cut to social insurance payments. These savings were then intended to be reallocated to retain employees, while companies that minimized layoffs would also be eligible to receive refunds on unemployment insurance premiums.
In addition, lending-related stimulus was also implemented to mitigate the effect of commercial and workforce issues. Lending measures were demonstrated in policies such as exempting SMEs from endowment insurance, unemployment insurance, and industrial injury insurance, along with removing overdue penalties for provident fund loans that employees failed to repay.
Banking was a crucial component of Beijing’s recovery plan. Loan deferments, reducing reserve requirements, and eased lending criteria helped prop up businesses that were facing financial difficulties. Comprehensive measures to free up banks’ balance sheets also provided more than 550 billion yuan in liquidity to support the flailing economy.
Outside the scope of financial stimulus, Beijing also placed a particularly watchful eye on small and medium enterprises (“SMEs”). The digitalization of SMEs became a key strategy that was anticipated to unlock digital opportunities through upstream and downstream enterprises. Providing critical resources to SMEs to digitize their operations would facilitate an economy-wide transition from a traditional in-person working model to a more digital-friendly remote workforce. This approach enabled SMEs, a significant employer within the Chinese economy, to protect more jobs earlier on in the pandemic. These steps then created a strong foundation for more substantive measures that were introduced to fill in the holes left by early stimulus measures.
In tandem, these targeted stimulus measures sought to provide a robust bulwark against many of the adverse economic effects that were brought upon by strict lockdown restrictions while paving the road for a comparatively speedy recovery from the pandemic’s grip over the economy.
Rollbacks Too Soon?
The stringent health measures in China began paying dividends in the form of virus containment. The subsequent eased lockdown restrictions and slow return to normalcy allowed the Chinese economy to recover much faster than other major economies across the globe, while ultimately growing 2.3 percent in 2020. Not only did this beat estimates set by the International Monetary Fund, but it was also the only major economy to experience growth in a year during which the world was upended by an unprecedented pandemic. Its impressive recovery has led to a recent review of the country’s stimulus measures, with policymakers beginning to roll back some of the support initiatives enacted in 2020.
The recall of stimulus will most likely be a gradual process. As policymakers seek to inch towards a balanced recovery from the pandemic, there have been concerns over the possible adverse consequences that rollbacks could have on not just the Chinese economy, but given the interconnectedness of Chinese supply chains, the broader global economy as well. If China’s effort to implement rollbacks are not executed properly, or done prematurely, there could be a domino effect of debt defaults or even a large selloff in the already on edge investor-laden stock market. Already in 2021, micro-tightenings of the broad money supply (M2) have gone hand-in-hand with over US$10 billion in delinquencies on commercial bond payments this year. While rolling back stimulus can help cool down overheated segments of the economy, Beijing will have to keep a watchful eye over cash-poor companies such as real estate developers, energy firms, and local government financing vehicles.
Altogether, the short-term and long-term recovery prospects for China’s economy may be very different depending on how well these stimulus measures are managed. The bureaucratic and systemic nature of the Chinese politico-economic system could ostensibly contribute to a shaky but profitable economic recovery over the short-term while exposing the world’s second largest economy to long-term vulnerabilities should the government play its cards too early. Ultimately, policymakers will need to remain vigilant, as a slight mismanagement of the recovery could lead to the unraveling of China’s coronavirus economic miracle.