China's Confidence Game

China's Confidence Game

Nearly a year ago, we warned of what might happen if a crisis of confidence strikes China's economy. Recent economic numbers return this worry to the spotlight.

In 2018, China's economy grew at its slowest pace in nearly 30 years. In response, the country's central bank moved earlier this month to boost bank lending and then pumped a record $84 billion into the banking system.



Then we got a warning that excessive lending itself has become a problem with news that bad debt has reached its highest level in a generation. The International Monetary Fund warned recently that the biggest current threats to global economic growth are a "no-deal Brexit" and a sharp slowdown of China's economy. At the World Economic Forum in Davos last week, Kenneth Rogoff, a widely respected expert on debt crises, warned that China may be forced to rescue large parts of its financial and economic system.

China's economy has been cooling for several years, and there's no sign yet the country's leaders have lost confidence in their ability to manage. The government's latest moves signal concern, but not panic, about the current strength of the economy and its ability to weather the storm created by the trade war with Washington. A speech by President Xi Jinping last week at a special meeting of central and provincial-level leaders focused on other risks to China's future.

But China's leaders can't control how markets see their country and its economy. Particularly since, as I wrote last February, all of China's big political and economic decisions are made behind closed doors by seven men — the Politburo Standing Committee of China's Communist Party.

The day is coming when doubts about China's economic resilience will abruptly begin to grow, and it won't be easy for state officials, even if they're telling the absolute truth about what they believe, to calm markets. Today, there is confidence in the stats that China's government produces mainly because growth is believed to be relatively strong. That makes it easy for investors to ignore stories about Chinese provincial governments admitting they've faked their GDP data.

But here's the key question: During a Chinese market meltdown, when the government tries to ease fears with a release of reassuring numbers, will investors believe them?

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Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week with a look at the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus, Delta variant woes, and Lebanon one year after the Beirut blast.

An Olympian refuses to return home to Belarus and an anti-Lukashenko activist has been found dead in Ukraine. What's going on?

Yeah. That anti-Lukashenko activist was found hanged in a park in Kiev. Once again, not exactly likely a suicide. These anti-Lukashenko activists have a way of turning up injured or dead. It's a horrible regime. Their friends are limited largely to the Russians. That's about it. The economic pressure is growing from Europe, from the United States, very coordinated. But the problem is a very hard to do much to Lukashenko when he has not only support of his military, but also the support of most of the workers in the country who aren't prepared to strike because they want to ensure they still have jobs. I expect this is going to continue, but human rights abuses are stacking up. It is nice to see that the Americans and the Europeans are coordinating policy as well as they have been.

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It's been 365 days since twin blasts at a Beirut port decimated Lebanon's capital. More than 200 people were killed and some 7,000 were injured, yet accountability has been scarce. There is ample evidence that multiple Lebanese officials knew that ammonium nitrate was being improperly stored at the port. Four high-ranking politicians, including former PM Hassan Diab, have been charged by a Lebanese judge, but they all refuse to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

Since then, Lebanon's already-dire economic and financial crises have only intensified. The Lebanese pound, the national currency, has plummeted, losing 90 percent of its value since 2019, when the country's economic crisis erupted. And more than 50 percent of the population is now living below the poverty line.

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The Biden administration is finally devoting more attention to Southeast Asia. Last week US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines, marking the first regional visit by a Biden cabinet official. A trip by Vice President Kamala Harris is already in the works as well, and this week Secretary of State Tony Blinken will meet (virtually) with ASEAN counterparts.

The flurry of activity comes after earlier concerns that President Joe Biden was neglecting Southeast Asia, the region where US-China rivalry is the most intense. To understand better what Austin's visit meant, and what comes next, Eurasia Group's lead Southeast Asia analyst Peter Mumford spoke to us from Singapore.

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Raisi won't have it easy: The newly "elected" president of Iran, Ibrahim Raisi, was officially endorsed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Tuesday. In his inaugural address, the 60-year-old hardliner pledged to get US sanctions removed and to respond to rising socioeconomic grievances within Iran, but he warned that he wouldn't lash Iran's prosperity or survival to "the will of foreigners." In Iran, the president's role focuses mainly on domestic policy, but with the economy reeling one of Raisi's big early challenges will be to continue complicated talks with the Biden administration to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal, which would lead to the US lifting some of the harshest sanctions. Both sides say they want a new deal, and have gone through half a dozen rounds of negotiations already, but they remain at odds over who should make what concessions first. Raisi also pledged to restore Iranians' flagging trust in their government and to improve the economic situation, but in ways that are in line with "revolutionary principles." He'll have his hands full with that. And don't forget that the likely imminent (re)takeover of neighboring Afghanistan by the Taliban — whom Tehran don't like at all — will also occur on Raisi's watch. Good luck, Mr. President, you'll need it.

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158: To boost vaccination rates, New York City will soon require proof of COVID vaccination or a negative test to enter gyms and restaurants, as daily new infections in the Big Apple have jumped 158 percent over the past two weeks due to the more contagious delta variant. New York is the first major US city to take this step, following similar schemes already in place in France and Italy.

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