Is China trading up?

China has been one of the success stories of the past 20 years, with rapid growth in domestic and export demand. This has created the second largest economy in the world. From 1992 to 2007 annual GDP growth averaged 10.7% and annual export growth averaged 18.9% (see chart).

However, with the credit crunch and ensuing recession, growth rates in China have fallen somewhat. Annual GDP growth has averaged 9.6% and annual export growth has averaged 7.4%. Such growth rates may not seem bad, given that many Western economies have been struggling to achieve any growth, but they have been causing concern for this booming economy.

In its May Outlook, the World Bank forecast China’s growth for the year at 8.2%, but it has since been reduced to 7.8%. A key part of China’s success story has been its export market, but it has been this market that has caused concerns for the mainland economy. In August of this year, its year-on-year export growth was at only 2.7%, but exports last month grew by more than expected, at approximately 7.4%. China has had a consistent trade surplus and according to government figures, this has widened to $27.67 billion in September from $26.66 billion in the previous month.

Recovery in this market will be crucial for the continued success of the economy, as a means of alleviating the fears of a slowdown. This higher growth of exports may be a misleading indicator, perhaps influenced by seasonal factors and thus may not be a sign of what’s to come. Indeed, many analysts have said that they are not convinced that these healthier trade figures will remain. Alistair Thornton, from IHS Global Economics said:

“It’s safe to say we are overshooting the trend here and we expect (the data) to come back in line in the months ahead.”

Citigroup economist, Ding Shaung also confirmed these sentiments:

”The trade data is a positive sign for the Chinese economy … But it remains to be seen whether import and export growth can remain at these levels.”

Part of this pessimism is due to the uncertainty surrounding the growth prospects of its biggest two trading partners – the US and the European Union. Exports to the former have remained relatively high, but exports to the European Union have suffered, falling by over 5.6%. It is likely that weaknesses in the global economy have held back China’s growth prospects in both exports and national output. The Chinese government was aiming for growth of 7.6% in 2012. Not a bad rate you may say, but when compared with growth rates for 2011 (9.3%) and 2010 (10.4%), it does represent a significant fall. The future of the Chinese economy is crucial for the recovery of the world economy, in part as it represents a big demand for imports from other countries, such as the US and Europe. The following articles consider the trade and growth prospects of the world’s second largest economy.

Chinese exports grow faster than expected in September BBC News (14/10/12)
Chinese exports grow faster than expected Financial Times, Patti Waldmeir (14/10/12)
China exports jump, but weaknesses seen ahead The Korea Herald (14/10/12)
China exports rise, hinting at a glimmer of revival New York Times, Keith Bradsher (13/10/12)
China’s trade surplus widens Wall Street Journal, William Kazer (13/10/12)
Chinese surplus widens as exports surge CNN, Paavan Mathemas (13/10/12)
China’s economic slow-down BBC Today Programme, Linda Yueh (18/10/12)


  1. What is a trade surplus?
  2. Which factors have influenced Chinese exports and imports?
  3. Why is China’s growth rate such an important variable for the UK and other Western economies?
  4. Why has export growth in China fallen recently? Can you use the same explanation for its lower growth in national output?
  5. Explain why analysts remain pessimistic about the sustainability of these improved trade figures.
  6. Using a diagram, illustrate the effect that higher Chinese growth rates will have on GDP in a country such as the UK. Could there be a multiplier effect?