WASHINGTON – It is no surprise that The Economist‘s cover this week is about China. The Shanghai Stock Market is almost in free fall, notwithstanding highly publicized state interventions (unthinkable in real market economies) to stabilize share prices. And we know about the zigzagging yuan, China’s currency, in the midst of what appears to be policy confusion at the Central Bank.
“Everything’s under control”
But what is interesting is that The Economist chose mockery, as opposed to a serious, even dramatic title, to depict the situation. The cover shows a drawing of a dragon with a totally terrified expression racing downhill (to nowhere), while a disheveled President Xi is struggling to stay in the saddle. The title says: “Everything’s under control”.
This is important. The Economist‘s editors could have chosen a different cover to introduce a story of serious economic troubles in the world’s second largest economy. For instance: a picture of a stern looking President Xi, with a title saying something like: “China in peril?”.
Satire, not reverence
But no, they chose mockery instead to portray a deteriorating economic situation. Well, this may not be the most irreverent satire. But it is satire nonetheless.
And I think that this needs to be noted, because of the sharp contrast with the almost reverential tone of most China coverage that used to be the norm until recently.
In awe of China’s leaders
Indeed, until not too long ago, most western media were almost in awe of China. After all, this was the country that had done the impossible: 30 years of uninterrupted growth. Imagine that: 10% a year added to GDP, year after year. No other country had done that.
The Chinese technocrats in charge of economic policies were depicted as all-knowing, super smart technocrats, armed with refined long-range strategies that we mere mortals could not even begin to comprehend, and the super human gift of infallibility.
Show the cracks
Well, now there seem to be huge cracks in the splendid Chinese economic edifice. The meteoric rise is over. In fact, more and more western business media openly say that most likely the real rate of growth in China is much lower than the still more than respectable 7% (if it were true) officially declared by Beijing.
Publish the bad news
There seems to be less reluctance to publish “the bad stuff” that at least indirectly contradicts official rosy numbers. For example: in 2015 there have been 2,774 unauthorized strikes in China. This is up from 1,379 in 2014, according to The Economist. These strikes (all of them illegal) are a sign of growing restlessness, possibly of major troubles brewing. And, by the way, the authoritative Caixin survey of the manufacturing sector just recorded the 26th consecutive month of decline.
Let’s be clear. Nobody is suggesting that China is about to fall apart. But it is suggested, in fact declared, that China’s heroic days are over. It is also argued more or less openly that the Chinese leaders are sometimes clueless, especially when it comes to managing financial and monetary affairs. As The Economist put it in the same issue:“The past six months have been hard on the reputation of China’s economic managers. Their attempts to bring troublesome stock markets to heel border on slapstick”. “Slapstick?” Yes, this is comedy, not tragedy. Hilarious levels of gross incompetence.
And, finally it is taken for granted that the Chinese publish inflated growth statistics that nobody believes anymore.
Now it is alright to mock
Well, I think that when it becomes alright to make fun of completely humorless leaders who want to be taken very seriously all the time, then we enter a different dimension.
The cartoon message is that these stern looking people who want to appear in serene control of everything in truth do not know what they are doing, while they deliberately lie about the extent of their problems. Sure “Everything’s under control” –they tell us– while the scared dragon races downhill, towards nothing.
Meaning: “Sorry guys, we do not buy the old super-performing China story anymore”.
I believe that this scared dragon cartoon on the cover of one of the most influential news magazines in the world hurts more than any title that would criticize the merit of specific economic choices.
This cover story does not say that China is pursuing wrong-headed policies. This funny cartoon says that this a bunch of clueless amateurs, clearly out of their depth.
I am sure that to be dismissed with a laugh hurts a lot more than to be criticized.
The China Myth is officially dead; and Thank God for that!