China in Transition

Can China Achieve the 7.5% Growth Target for 2014?

Chi Hung KWAN
Consulting Fellow, RIETI

The Chinese government's work report, delivered to the National People's Congress (NPC) in March 2014, has set forth a series of key economic targets for 2014 (see Table 1). Most notably, the growth target for the gross domestic product (GDP) in real terms was set at "around 7.5%," unchanged from the target for 2013. However, China's potential growth rate is believed to have fallen significantly with the continuing labor shortage as a major constraint. Coupled with little room left to implement expansionary macroeconomic policies, the government may have difficulty achieving its growth target.

Table 1: China's key economic targetsTable 1: China's key economic targets
Source: Compiled by the author based on the Report on the Work of the Government for 2013 and 2014, the Report on the Implementation of the 2012 Plan for National Economic and Social Development and on the 2013 Draft Plan for National Economic and Social Development, and the Report on the Implementation of the 2013 Plan for National Economic and Social Development and on the 2014 Draft Plan for National Economic and Social Development.

Emphasis on job creation through economic growth

Premier Li Keqiang explained the background for setting the 7.5% growth target as follows:

"We set a growth rate target of around 7.5%... both to meet the need to create new urban jobs and provide opportunities for rural migrant workers who come to cities for work... ultimately... (to) ensure that urban and rural incomes increase and people's lives improve. There are many positive factors for fulfilling this year's target for economic growth, but to reach it, we must make arduous efforts."

Speaking at the news conference after the close of the NPC meeting, Premier Li said that the "around" mentioned in the GDP growth target of around 7.5% means that "there is some flexibility and we have some tolerance" for a slightly higher or lower rate of actual growth. He did not provide any specific figure for the acceptable lower limit. However, he said that the GDP growth needs to "ensure fairly full employment and realize reasonable increases in people's income," given the fact that "each year, we need to add over 10 million urban jobs and leave room for about six to seven million rural migrant workers to obtain employment in cities." (Note1) Meanwhile, in his address on the state of the economy delivered at the National Congress of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) on October 21, 2013, Premier Li said that about 7.2% economic growth would be needed in order to create 10 million jobs per year. Taken together, these comments seem to suggest that the lowest acceptable economic growth rate is 7.2% (Note2).

Labor shortage as a key constraint to growth

As such, in setting the economic growth target, the Chinese government has given the maximum possible consideration to securing jobs for its people. However, China's working-age population (15 years old through 59 years old) has trended downward from 2012 onward, and the pool of surplus labor in rural areas has dried up—i.e., China has reached its Lewisian Turning Point—against the backdrop of massive labor migrations to the urban areas. As a consequence, China is now facing a significant labor shortage, which in turn is putting a constraint on economic growth.

Indeed, the job-offers-to-seekers ratio in the urban areas posted a record high of 1.1 in the first quarter of 2013 despite the GDP growth rate remaining at 7.7% (see Figure 1). Judging from the fact that the number of job offers, which represents labor demand, exceeded that of job seekers, which represents labor supply, by a significant margin of 10%, China's current potential growth rate may have fallen to around 7%, a level below the actual growth rate of 7.7%.

Figure 1: Job offers-to-seekers ratio remains high despite slower economic growth
—Suggesting a significant decline in China's potential growth rate—
Figure 1: Job offers-to-seekers ratio remains high despite slower economic growth
Note: The job offers-to-seekers ratio shown above is calculated by dividing the number of job offers by that of job seekers registered in public employment services organizations in approximately 100 cities in China.
Source: Compiled by the author based on data provided by the National Bureau of Statistics of China and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.

As Japan's experience with its bubble economy in the late 1980s clearly shows, an attempt to achieve a growth target that exceeds the potential growth rate by implementing expansionary macroeconomic policies may destabilize the economy. In China, clear signs of a bubble are already emerging as seen in the soaring prices of real estate, the ballooning of local government debt, and the rapid growth of shadow banking. In order to avoid an imminent crisis, the Chinese government will be forced to prioritize measures to fight the bubble over those for pump-priming the economy. With this posing a constraint to economic growth, China's GDP growth for 2014 is expected to dip to around 7%, a level lower than the government's target.

The original text in Japanese was posted on April 4, 2014.

  1. ^ In the latest Report on the Work of the Government, Premier Li sets the target number of new employment opportunities in the urban areas at 10 million, based on the actual number of 13.1 million achieved in 2013. However, as Cai Fang, director of the Institute of Population and Labor Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, points out, statistics on urban new employment are subject to measurement inaccuracies, including the double-counting of migrant workers from rural areas, and the 2013 figure is likely to be an overestimate. See Cai, Fang, "Reform to Overcome the Constraint of a Shrinking Workforce," Shanghai Securities News, March 20, 2014 (text available in Chinese only).
  2. ^ In the same address, Premier Li also noted that the number of new jobs created with every percent of GDP growth has increased from the previous one million to between 1.3 million and 1.5 million as a result of economic structural adjustments—most notably the rapid development of service industries—in recent years. This certainly would lift some of the pressure on the government to create new jobs, but it cannot be embraced wholeheartedly because it also means slower growth in labor productivity.
Related articles

April 4, 2014