Steven Rattner for The New York Times: Will China Stumble? Don’t Bet on It

December 2nd, 2011

The New York Times
By Steven Rattner
December 2, 2011

HARDLY a day goes by without news of yet another economic problem facing China. A frothy real estate market. Quickly rising wages. A weakening manufacturing sector. Tightening lending standards. The list can seem endless and frightening.

But after a recent visit to China, I remain staunchly optimistic that it will continue to be the world’s greatest machine for economic expansion. While developed countries bump along with little growth, China’s gross domestic product is expected to increase by 9.2 percent in 2011 and an equally astonishing 8.5 percent next year.

The country pulses with energy and success, a caldron of economic ambition larded with understandable self-confidence. Visit the General Motors plant on the outskirts of Shanghai and watch Buicks churned out by steadily moving assembly lines almost indistinguishable from those in plants in Michigan.

That shouldn’t surprise, as G.M. strives for uniformity across its Chinese facilities. Perhaps more startling is that G.M. achieves American levels of productivity, quality and worker safety — with pay that is a small fraction of levels in the United States.

This illustrates China’s great strength: its ability to relentlessly grind down costs by combining high labor efficiency with wages that remain extraordinarily low. At Foxconn’s largest plant, in Shenzhen, 420,000 Chinese earning about $188 per month assemble electronic components for megacustomers like Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

Often criticized for just being a nation of “assemblers,” China has been increasing the value it adds to exports as more components are produced there. G.M., for example, uses 350 local suppliers.

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