Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

China’s Evergrande: A Serious Crisis, But Hardly an Asian Lehman Brothers

The Evergrande Group, a giant Chinese real estate developer, is on the brink of default. For the Chinese bureaucracy, the crisis is not only an “opportunity to regulate the sector,” as some would have us believe. But it is too early to declare this a Chinese version of the 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse, since the Chinese government will not likely wait for things to reach that level.

André Barbieri

September 21, 2021
Facebook Twitter Share

The crisis of Evergrande, China’s second-largest real estate development company, has shaken the global financial markets. The company, whose liabilities are estimated at US$355 billion, informed creditors a few days ago that it would not be able to meet interest payments on its debt that were due on Monday, September 20. Market reactions were negative that day. In the United States, the Dow Jones, S&P 500, and Nasdaq fell 1.78 percent, 1.70 percent, and 2.19 percent, respectively. Brazil’s Ibovespa index dropped 2.33 percent. In Europe, the Euro Stoxx 50 index (Eurozone) fell 2.11 percent, and markets in London, Paris, and Frankfurt all dropped, by 0.86 percent, 1.74 percent, and 2.31 percent, respectively.

The sheer size of the company, it’ amount of debt it carries, and the Chinese government’s wait-and-see attitude have been enough to generate a lot of misguided discussion of this being a Chinese Lehman Brothers. That’s a reference to September 2008, when the fourth-largest U.S. investment bank collapsed due to the insolvency of its massive mortgage loans. With no Federal Reserve bailout, the collapse had a domino effect of losses in financial institutions worldwide.

The crisis is not only an “opportunity to regulate the sector,” as some — including the Chinese bureaucracy’s own propaganda — would have us believe. But it is too early to declare this a Chinese version of Lehman Brothers, since the Chinese government will not likely wait for things to reach that level.

The Evergrande crisis is the explosive echo of a real estate bubble in China that was not going to sustain itself for long. Much of China’s economic growth in recent years has come from public and private investment in real estate, as the decline in  social benefits from the Mao Zedong era — such as state-subsidized housing — had to give way to new ways of meeting the needs of the population. China’s urbanization rate has risen steadily since the 1990s, with successive waves of migrant workers from the countryside filling the industrial cities. Since the mid-2000s, though, an emerging middle class in the big cities has also imposed the need for urban planning.

Creating housing, factory dormitories, and other buildings created a boom for the real estate and construction sector, which now accounts for a substantial part of China’s GDP — some 29 percent today. Evergrande alone has 778 projects underway in 223 cities. That much business is symbolic of China’s economic growth pattern in the recent period, and an eventual default of the company — owned by founder Xu Jiayin and Jack Ma of the giant Alibaba (and target of government disciplining of big tech firms) — would cause the collapse of several other real estate-related companies in the country.

There are other potential ripple effects, too. The construction sector relies on commodities such as iron ore, and so the Chinese crisis directly affects countries such as Brazil, where companies such as Vale are exporters of that raw material to China.

Thus, the entire affair is no “minor detail.” The Chinese government is seeking to reduce the state’s burden of using public money to finance, and sometimes even rescue, companies at a time when it is also trying to contain the effects of China’s enormous inequality. Today, there are tens of millions without jobs while the country has more billionaires than the United States.

Moreover, a large percentage of labor strikes in China are concentrated in the construction sector, according to the China Labour Bulletin. Henan province has surpassed Guangdong province (where Evergrande is headquartered) in the number of strikes this year — all among workers in the civil construction industry, who have either not been paid, been given IOUs, or had their wages doled out in installments smaller than what they are supposed to receive. On top of this, there is a glut of contract fraud. The government’s allergy to labor strikes raises greater concerns about what might happen with a real estate bankruptcy.

Intellectuals such as Elias Jabbour, an economics professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, artificially diminish the economic concerns that Evergrande’s problems create within Xi Jinping’s bureaucracy. He confuses the real Evergrande situation with the government’s apparent interest in regulating some of China’s monopolies as a way to secure the business of Chinese capitalism more effectively and reduce the possibility of social explosions resulting from inequality. It would be difficult for the Chinese government to allow a generalized “breakup” of small- and medium-size enterprises that depend on the real estate sector just to teach Evergrande a “lesson.” When things worsen, the reactions we expect from Beijing tend to change. What is certain is that Xi cannot allow major jolts to the Chinese economy — especially at a moment of heated international disputes with Washington, which has just closed a deal to sell nuclear submarines to Australia. Accounting for almost one-third of China’s GDP, the real estate sector — and Evergrande itself, if need be — will get help. In China, too, there are capitalist enterprises that are “too big to fail.”

Beijing is walking a tightrope. The government, which controls the banking sector, needs to inflict enough pain on Evergrande to show that it is “serious” about the real estate industry’s need to reduce its debt levels and cease its dependence on state financing. Xi doesn’t want to spend money bailing out companies; he wants robust capitalists who guarantee their own profits, and discipline themselves to the Chinese Communist Party. But he cannot afford to go too far. The lesson cannot turn a strategic sector of China’s economy into a dying ghost.

The Chinese bureaucracy, however, cannot control everything, and crises arise that elude Xi’s plans. We will see how he deals with this latest one.

First published in Portuguese on September 20 in Esquerda Diário.

Translation by Scott Cooper

Facebook Twitter Share

Asia-Pacific

U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks at a podium with arms wide open as President of the Republic of China Tsai Ing-Wen looks on.

Pelosi in Taiwan: A Risky Provocation for Imperialism

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan has made the bad Washington-Beijing relationship worse. What was her purpose?

André Barbieri

August 3, 2022

Tension in Taiwan and the Dispute over Global Hegemony

Without clear objectives, Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan seems more like a provocation than a strategic calculation. Her trip could trigger a major international crisis involving the United States and China, with the contest for world hegemony as a backdrop.

Claudia Cinatti

August 3, 2022

Drone Strike in Kabul Proves the U.S. Is Still Waging War on Afghanistan

Biden announced on August 1 that he approved the drone assassination of Ayman al-Zawahiri, a top-level al-Qaeda leader. This is an attack on Afghanistan’s sovereignty and continues U.S imperialism’s brutal attempt to dominate the country.

Sam Carliner

August 2, 2022
Security personnel stand guard next to a barricade near the Presidential Secretariat after a raid on an anti-government protest camp early on Friday, in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan Masses Remain in the Streets, despite New President and Military Raids

The mass movement in Sri Lanka has rejected a new prime minister and president, and the state’s response is to raid protest camps and arrest movement leaders. Workers around the world must continue to show solidarity with Sri Lankans and their uprising against austerity.

Sam Carliner

July 22, 2022

MOST RECENT

A slightly blurry photo of a crowd of people all raising their fists.

Subalterns, Postcolonialists, and the Specter of Capital: A Polemic from Marxism

The theories of the “postcolonialists” condemn us to the mere repetition of local resistance with no way out of the brutal plundering of people by imperialism, multiple repressions, and exploitation. The socialist strategy is a tool to eradicate the society based on this brutality.

NYPD Violently Arrest 5 Abortion Rights Activists at a Clinic Defense

On Saturday, five people were violently arrested protecting abortion access in NYC, while NYPD protected anti-choicers attempting to harass patients.

Molly Rosenzweig

August 6, 2022
Brazilan President Jair Bolsonaro, seen in Brasilia, Brazil in April.

Against Bolsonaro’s Coup and Reforms — For Demonstrations and Strikes without Bankers and Businessmen

Left Voice’s co-thinkers in Brazil answer a cynical class-collaborationist effort to channel Brazil’s working-class discontent into the election campaign of Lula’s Broad Front ticket. The latter represents the interests of the bourgeoisie and bosses who are tired of Bolsonaro and his threats of a coup should he lose his reelection bid.

In a Backlash Against Dobbs, Kansas Votes Overwhelmingly to Protect Abortion

Kansans have overwhelmingly voted to protect abortion rights in their state. This is a huge rejection of the anti-democratic Dobbs decision by the tyrannical Supreme Court.

Tatiana Cozzarelli

August 2, 2022