End of the East Asian economic miracle?

Saturday 17 October, 17.30 until 18.45, Pit Theatre, Barbican Eye on the World

Until recently, the standard talk about the global economy was of a ‘two-speed rebound’ from the recession following the financial crash. The rapid recoveries experienced by the emerging economies were contrasted with the sluggish recoveries in the advanced economies of America, Europe and Japan.

More recently, however, the talk is of a great unraveling of the emerging markets story. The IMF set the tone earlier this year when it argued that trend growth rates in emerging-market economies are already in decline and are expected to fall further in the medium term. China’s decades of double-digit growth are now perceived as ancient history, with its growth rate is expected to fall from around eight per cent in 2013 to just above six per cent in 2016. More fundamentally, it is argued that East Asia is starting to hit the buffers of the ‘middle-income trap’, whereby developing countries often struggle to make the transition to self-sustaining economic growth based on rising productivity rather than cheap labour. On top of this, China may be fast approaching the point when its previously apparently inexhaustible supply of surplus rural labour dries up and industrial wages rise rapidly. Combined with an ageing and declining workforce, this is forecast to lead to slower growth, reduced investment and a loss of export competitiveness.

Nevertheless, others argue such concerns are overblown. Many East Asian economies have developed much broader bases of production than they had 30 years ago. Most have been able to build up large foreign-exchange reserves. The experiences of the original East Asian ‘Tigers’ – Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea – seem to show the middle-income trap is not insuperable. Whatever economic stresses China is facing, it has confounded the sceptics many times before. China has already started to move away from a reliance on cheap labour, turning to research and development and innovation as the next drivers of productivity growth.

Did the world get too carried away with East Asia’s economic miracle? Was its economic rise a simple case of catch-up and favourable demographics? Is this stage over? Has the forecast rebalancing of the world from West to East also been exaggerated? Or is it the case that as wages rise, particularly as it produces ever more sophisticated and higher-value goods, this will provide the market to drive regional economic growth into the future?

Daniel Ben-Ami
journalist and author, Ferraris for All: in defence of economic progress and Cowardly Capitalism

Shaun Breslin
professor of international politics, University of Warwick; associate fellow, Chatham House Asia Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs

Jeanne-Marie Gescher
author, All Under Heaven: China’s Dreams of Order; speaker; adviser

Professor Alan Hudson
director of leadership and public policy programmes, University of Oxford; visiting professor, Shanghai Jiaotong University

Charles Nishikawa
management consultant, Across Associates Consultants; lecturer, Mejiro University

Rob Lyons
science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum

Produced by
Rob Lyons science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum
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