By attempting to put on a brave front, China cannot mask the problems that it is currently mired with. Over the past year, the country has faced protests from various regions that it claims as its own territories. After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, China has also been experiencing a certain degree of indignation from the international community. In addition to that, nations like the United States and India have either had an economic fallout with the country or are steadily withdrawing their financial investments from China. Also considering that every move that China makes is being viewed with suspicion if not critically evaluated, sheds light on how the nation is struggling to keep its allies close.
However, in the midst of so many issues, one major concern for China should be its economy. And given the ways in which it is attempting to shelter its financial status from the world, just raises some questions about the wellbeing of the economic giant. China’s recent crackdowns on Hong Kong in the name of national security law, might have backfired. Even though the international financial hub, experienced a certain degree of autonomy, under the newly introduced law, its status will be no different from its mainland counterparts. This shift in the power balance might have some damaging implications on the Chinese economy.
Hong Kong’s previously enjoyed autonomy was what made it an able economic arm of China. Due to its low tax rates and favorable legal and financial systems, it was able to attract sufficient investments from various institutions. As per the Ministry of Commerce of China, over 58% (USD 70 billion) of China’s nonfinancial Outbound Direct Investment (ODI) went to Hong Kong as of 2018. By the end of the same year, this volume plummeted and reached USD 622 billion. Over 60% of the Chinese Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is channeled via Hong Kong. Not to mention, the USD 1.1 trillion worth of Chinese bank assets that the territory holds. As of 2019, Chinese companies raised $64 billion globally, out of which $35 billion came from Hong Kong alone. Apart from that, the territory also plays an important role in bolstering the Chinese currency. Even though Hong Kong has its own currency, the Hong Kong dollar, it is also the biggest market for foreign exchange including the Chinese Yuan or the Renminbi. This serves as one of the primary reasons why investors are attracted to Hong Kong. From 2016 to 2019, alone, the rate of such foreign exchange transactions has increased by 3.9%, which is $77.1 billion in April2016, to $107.6 billion by April of 2019. However, in light of the pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, these numbers have significantly decreased, as investors no longer feel safe to carry out their transactions there.
The national security law imposed on Hong Kong, mainly criminalizes four types of offences- sedition, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Even though these laws pertain to aspects of security, they do have some impacts on the Chinese economy as well. The new national security law is not just limited to Hong Kongers, but also extends to every cooperation that has investments or business in the region. The requirement would need them to be wary of not toeing the line. This has naturally dissuaded investors, especially foreign investors who do not wish to be caught up in the political and legal crossfires. Considering that Chinese political advisor, Leung Chun-ying, has publicly called for the boycott of HSBC, on social media platforms and China has been pressurizing accounting firms like PwC, Deloitte, KPMG, and Ernst & Young to investigate and fire employees who were associated with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests. According to a survey carried out by the Hong Kong’s American Chamber of Commerce, over 60% of its members believed that the national security law would harm their business and 29% of them considered relocating. This clearly shows the fear among enterprises and investors operating in Hong Kong.
Taking into account that China’s new law diverges from its earlier policy of “one country, two systems”, there is a high probability that the tax rates in Hong Kong might mirror those of the mainland. In such a case, Hong Kong which was previously known as the tax haven, would experience a serious downfall in its number of investors.
The repercussions due to the national security law were soon felt after it was imposed. On May 22nd of this year, Hong Kong’s stock market plunged by 5%. This was considered to be one of the biggest falls since 2015. The property sector sub-index too fell by 7.7%, worse than the 2008 crisis. Companies like Sun Hung Kai Properties lost 7.1 percent and New World Development dropped 8.1 percent, while Wharf Real Estate Investment shed 8.7 percent. Hong Kong has also experienced a contraction of 8.9% , as a result of the combined effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, protests and U.S tensions. In response to the stock market plunge in May, the Hong Kong market saw an inflow of money from the mainland, as many Chinese state owned firms bought up the Hong Kong stocks. But this does not change the fact that ever since last year, the city has been experiencing major dips in its finances. One of the best indicators of its economic distress, is the fall in the Hong Kong’s FDI. FDI for 2019, was $53.17 billion which is a decline by 45.2% since 2018. Additionally, Hong Kong’s GDP in the second half of 2019, also fell by 1.2%. As per UNCTAD’s officials, the city was met with disinvestments worth $48 billion.
But China is not unaware of Hong Kong’s troubling finances, and is desperately yet subtly trying to grapple with the issue. To understand how China is dealing with a possible economic and legal recoil, one needs to take a look at its recent policies and actions. Soon after the declaration of the national security law, China launched the “Wealth Management Connect” on June 29, 2020, as a response to the flailing economy of Hong Kong. This was done with the intention of creating a better integration among all of China’s territories together and also to turn the Greater Bay Area including Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in Southern Guangdong province into a financial hub by 2030. According to this initiative, residents in the area will be allowed to buy wealth management products that are available in each other’s markets. This will allow for better investments with the regions, under the PRC’s supervision. However, the success rate of this initiative is highly debatable as a global recession might be in order due to the pandemic.
The Wealth Management Concept was just one aspect of the deal, Beijing now seeks to tax its diaspora to make up for its tax revenues. The income tax regulations were amended in January 2019, however, expatriates are feeling the burden of its enforcement since the past two months. The ones that are severely affected due to this change are the Chinese mainlanders who reside in Hong Kong. Many SOE’s are informing their employees to declare their 2019 income, so that they can start paying taxes that contribute to their homeland. The tax rate that was previously 15% has been significantly increased to 45%. While the Chinese diaspora cope with this higher tax rate and the living expenses of Hong Kong, many analysts speculate that the city might experience a brain drain. As of 2019, around 29,200 people have been reported to leave the territory. Even though Hong Kong does not publish high frequency immigration reports, there has been a 50% increase in the applications for good citizenship cards, which are averaged to be around 2,935 as of June, 2019. The increasing taxes clubbed with the fear of protests, might lead to a wave of emigration from the region, thereby reducing the lucrativeness of Hong Kong and negatively affecting China’s economy.
Despite the actions and regulations that China seems to have posed in the past year over its so- called territories, its actions in the international domain do not seem to fit in their own narratives. Trump and Xi Jinping have been engaged in a trade war for the most part of their presidencies. However, in light of the pandemic and the upcoming US presidential elections, this war seems to have been heated more than ever. As of February 2020, the US debt was estimated to be around $22 trillion. Out of which China owned $1.1 trillion, this amounted up to 21% of the US debt held overseas and 7.2% of the US’s total debt load. These figures, however, have changed in the past three months alone, as China has increased its holdings of US treasury securities by USD 10.9 billion. This sudden spike in buying US debt amidst a trade war, appears to be suspicious to say the least. Buying of treasury bonds is a common practice in the global market among nations, as it enables a country to anchor their currency at a certain amount. China’s sudden purchase of treasury bonds, could possibly mean that it is attempting to peg its currency to that of the US dollars. Another possible outcome could be that China might sell off these bonds at a higher rate in the future, so as to significantly damage the US economy. However, as per some Chinese sources, this shall be a “nuclear move” on the part of the Chinese. As per another Chinese source, China Power, the nation bought these treasury bonds in order to manage the exchange rate of the ChineseYuan, and such a trade does not give the nation an edge over the US. Despite whatever narrative that China wishes to bring to the table, it cannot be denied that its sudden interest in purchasing its rival’s treasury bonds and taxing its own diaspora might be an indication of a bigger issue.
As of today, China is running out of economic allies. The US- China trade war had significant repercussions for the global market as is. But its recent conflict with India might affect China to a certain degree as well. In light of the recent border dispute between India and China, the notion of boycotting Chinese products in India has been increasingly popularized. India shares a trade deficit of $57 billion as of last year. If India, one of the largest consumers of the Chinese market were to boycott its products, this could have serious ramifications for the Chinese economy.
It is no secret that China has been met with criticisms on various fronts by the international community. But considering the recent events and the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, China could be attempting to cover up a major economic breakdown within its system. Earlier this year, a Chinese company was accused of depositing a “ghost collateral”. A private owned Chinese company, Wuhan Kingold Jewelry Inc., which owed many Chinese financial institutions and trust companies a loan of 20 billion Yuan ($2.8 billion) in the form of pure gold as a collateral, turned out to be fake. This company’s Chairman is Jia Zhihong, an ex- military man who defaulted on paying his investors. When 83 tonnes of Chinese gold turns out to be gilded copper, it does not paint a very good picture for the Chinese economy. Many could pass this incident off as the default of Kingold, but there is more than what meets the eye. China’s hasty enforcement of policies over its own territories and its apparently stable economy after suffering a major pandemic; whilst battling over issues of commerce with multiple nations, simply does not add up. In all probability, China could be heading towards an economic downfall and is still choosing to keep a tightlipped approach about it.