Chinese Financial Development in Historical Context


Chris Miller asks how China’s debt-driven growth model fits into the larger history of developing states and if it can escape the pitfalls that ensnared others.

By Chris Miller, Assistant Prof. of International History, Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

Zhou Xiaochuan, the Governor of the People’s Bank of China, shocked observers in October when he worried publicly that his country may be facing a “Minsky Moment.” “When there are too many pro-cyclical factors in an economy, cyclical fluctuations will be amplified,” Zhou argued. “If we’re too optimistic when things go smoothly, tensions build up, which could lead to a sharp correction.”[1] Fears that the world’s second largest economy is on the cusp of financial crash of the type analyzed by economist Hyman Minsky have long been a concern of foreign investors. Some have bet against Chinese assets, expecting a chaotic deflation of China’s debt bubble. Many rich Chinese have sought to ferret their wealth abroad, into dollar-denominated assets or apartments in Sydney or Vancouver, seeking to diversify amid fears of an impending crash.

Yet China has repeatedly proven doubters wrong. It has avoided financial crisis and maintained GDP growth above 6% every year since the early 1990s. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, China had to execute a bank bailout equivalent to around 28% of GDP, yet even this had little appreciable effect on GDP growth, and created only small ripples in financial markets.[2] Neither the 2008 credit crunch nor the rise and fall of commodity prices have managed to derail Chinese growth.

“This time is different,” is the famous saying of the many investors throughout history who have lost their shirts after misplaced bets on financial stability went wrong. To what extent is China different? What can we understand about the country’s economic development and financial stability from looking at the past? We know that Chinese leaders have repeatedly looked to historical models, both in East Asia and in the West, when crafting economic policy.[3] Is China’s financial model unique? What does economic history have to say about its sustainability? This paper will examine Chinese financial development in comparison with the Japan, the Asian Tigers, and the Soviet Union.