More to capitalism than good economic growth

City A.M.
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China Daily Life
China's ongoing manipulation of its markets should give Brussels pause for thought (Source: Getty)

What are the hallmarks of capitalism? Typically you might think of cities, skyscrapers, banks, insurers, people in sharp suits, and so on. These are some symptoms of a market-orientated economy, for sure, but they do not tell the whole picture.

There are two factors that accurately signal the degree to which a society is free and liberal. Firstly, a robust and fairly-applied rule of law. Secondly, the existence of strongly-enforced and widely-trusted property rights.

China's economic development over the last two or three decades has coincided with many of the aforementioned hallmarks: astonishingly fast urbanisation, enviable rates of growth and the buzz of business activity. But underneath the surface, all is not well.

Courts suffer from gross political interference, the law is not fairly applied to all citizens, political power is exploited, scapegoating is common, and punishments can be notoriously draconian.

Just cast your mind back to the sight of Chinese journalists being paraded on state TV last summer, offering forced apologies for having had the temerity to report on stock market turmoil. China might have the trappings of capitalism but it's no capitalist society.

To cope with current shocks in the stock market (which plummeted seven per cent earlier this week) authorities are extending a ban on institutional investors selling their shares. With each extension of this rule, property rights are further undermined.

One of the reasons China's markets experience such volatility is because 90 per cent of trading is carried out by retail investors. If authorities wish to attract larger, longer-term investors then they're going to have to start respecting property rights and free-market principles.

Don't expect such a transition to occur anytime soon, though. What we're witnessing is the inevitable battle that occurs when an authoritarian, communist regime dips its toe in the waters of market economics but doesn't have the confidence (or the inclination) to relinquish control.

All the while, China is actively pursuing Market Economy Status – a recognition that would bring easier market access and one which is in the gift of the European Commission. China's ongoing manipulation of its markets should give Brussels pause for thought.

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