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China’s Urgent Task: Maintain Growth While Fighting Inflation and Social Unrest

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More evidence emerged over the weekend that China is increasingly worried about slowing growth and the social unrest that could arise as a result. Always a concern, this is a particularly sensitive issue in a time of political transition as the top leaders of the Communist Party are set to change next fall.

"It is an urgent task for us to think how to establish a social management system with Chinese characteristics to suit our socialist market economy," warned Zhou Yongkang, the Chinese leadership's law-and-order czar. "Especially when facing the negative effects of the market economy, we still have not formed a complete mechanism for social management."

These comments come on the heels of last week's news that manufacturing in China fell to levels not seen since February 2009. As a result, many economists — including those at IHS Global Insights and J.P. Morgan — have lowered growth expectations for the rest of the year.

Gross domestic product averaged 9.7% in China from 2008 to 2010, but since the beginning of this year growth has been slowing. The country's GDP slowed to 9.1% in the third quarter, from 9.5% in the second and 9.7% from the first.

Last week, the Chinese government also unexpectedly cut bank reserve requirements by 50 basis points, which will likely help banks increase lending in the months to come. "They are much more worried about the Chinese economy slowing very fast so they are putting their foot back down on the accelerator," says Daniel Franklin, editor of The Economist's The World in 2012, a publication focused on the trends and stories that will shape the year to come.

To his point, at the end of November, China announced another stimulus plan roughly two times the size of its initial program back in 2008, which did prevent a recession but has led to inflation and a country-wide debt crisis. The country is now set to spend $1.7 trillion on seven "strategic" or high-tech sectors.

But the question remains: Is this new spending program a short-term fix or means to restart sustained long-term growth?

The World in 2012: China

What is not in question these days is the fact that China, as well as other emerging markets, are not only producing much of the world's goods, but are consuming more and more of the world's goods too.

According to Franklin, a big shift is coming in 2012. Emerging economies are set to overtake the rest of the world as the biggest importers of goods.

"That is a dramatic change since 2000, when they imported barely half as much as rich countries did," writes Pam Woodall in the magazine. "This rapid growth in developing countries' buying power will boost the profits of companies in rich economies over the coming years."

And by 2014, China alone will surpass the United States as the world's biggest importer.

"Within ten-to-15 years emerging markets could produce half of the revenues of several big multinational firms," writes Woodall. "This rapid growth in developing countries' buying power will boost the profits of companies in rich economies over the coming years."

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