X Close

China’s Bitcoin boom poses a threat to Xi

Xi Jinping is not a fan of crypto. Credit: Getty

January 26, 2024 - 6:30pm

In the latest instalment of this season’s China-gloom series, it emerged this week that the country’s investors are using Bitcoin to shelter from the storm currently roiling their country’s property and stock markets. What makes this development so remarkable is that it involves some artful dodging, given that crypto mining and trading is illegal in the country.

But at the moment, it’s comparatively lucrative. Property prices are down 7% in real terms since their 2021 peak, while the stock market is in even worse shape. Unlike its US rival, prices on the Shanghai market never recovered from the global financial crisis, and have now shed half their value since 2007. The trend in both markets continues remorselessly downwards. Although Bitcoin has its own woes and is well off its 2021 peak, in recent months at least it has held up relatively well.

Yet the enduring slump in Chinese assets isn’t for want of efforts by the Chinese authorities to juice the economy, using repeated waves of stimulus spending. As a share of GDP, government debt has tripled since the financial crisis, largely thanks to splurging on huge infrastructure projects. When private debt is added to the mix, China now owes its creditors nearly three times the value of its annual output.

Given that most of these creditors are in fact Chinese savers, this level of debt doesn’t set off alarm bells the way it would in other countries. But the fact that China is racking up its bills without getting much additional growth to show for it is starting to trouble investors. There’s a widespread recognition that the country’s economy needs structural change so as to move it away from investment-led export growth and towards domestic consumption, which would require some loosening of civil society.

But action remains slow to come. The Chinese Premier’s recent speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, which can be treated as an indication of the government’s position, revealed no sense of urgency to change course. Despite ordering local fund managers not to sell shares, Beijing has failed to stem the decline of the stock market. Whereas America’s S&P 500 index has risen by 20% over the last year, the Shanghai market is down by a tenth.

Many markets have underperformed relative to the US in recent years, yet this doesn’t minimise China’s woes. Part of its difficulty is that its assets have become unattractive to foreign investors at the very moment other regional markets have begun to beckon. In part this reflects geopolitical shifts, most notably the pressure of Western governments for their firms to decouple from China, along with the trend to de-risk among American and European CEOs anxious about the direction of Chinese policy. 

More significantly, though, some of China’s rivals in Asia have suddenly become a lot more appealing to Western investors. Japan appears to have finally shaken off its deflation problem, which could mean there’s considerable upside in future Japanese corporate earnings. And India has become an attractive market for firms looking either to “friend-shore” or to connect with what will be the world’s fastest-growing middle class.

Now, Chinese investors are joining their Western peers in heading for the exits. It’s hardly a vote of confidence in their own country’s leaders. Warren Buffett famously said investors could never go wrong betting on America. Until Chinese investors show a similar faith in their country and its leaders, the rest of the world will do well to follow their lead.


John Rapley is an author and academic who divides his time between London, Johannesburg and Ottawa. His books include Why Empires Fall: Rome, America and the Future of the West (with Peter Heather, Penguin, 2023) and Twilight of the Money Gods: Economics as a religion (Simon & Schuster, 2017).

jarapley

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

6 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
5 months ago

Don’t worry, the Chinese government will release some new statistics shortly that will smooth all this over.

D Walsh
D Walsh
5 months ago

Indeed, their numbers are about as reliable as our own

Martin M
Martin M
5 months ago

With any luck, they’ll crack down hard on those who are holding bitcoin.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
5 months ago

There’s an argument to be made that the US economy is not nearly as healthy as stock prices suggest and/or that stock prices are a poor measure of economic health to begin with.
Either way, China has an easy out that nobody seems to realize. They can take a page out of the Nazi playbook and militarize the economy. They can turn their productive capacity towards building weapons for themselves, the Russians, the North Koreans, etc. They can make the numbers say whatever they want them to say and to the domestic population insulated from foreign media, it will look like there are plenty of jobs and everything is fine. This was Hitler’s answer to the Great Depression and it worked well enough for him to make himself Fuhrer without much argument.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
5 months ago

Every article on market values, and especially bitcoins, needs to draw the distinction between valuing something by what someone else will pay versus its intrinsic value. Intrinsic value is what it is worth based on the income it gives and the eventual sale of the assets in it. With bitcoins intrinsic value is zero. With tech stocks it is the net present value of their projected revenues less projected costs for as long as there is a demand. Eventually something better always comes along. Paying more than intrinsic value can be profitable if someone else buys it from you at a yet higher price but it inevitably leads to investment bubbles, that are full of wishful thinking, and eventually substantial losses.

Alex Colchester
Alex Colchester
5 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

As many do, you are confusing a means of exchange for an asset. What is the intrinsic value of a dollar bill?! Nothing. Since Nixon nixed gold convertibility it is solely based on confidence in the US government. And yet the dollar is one of the most important entities in the modern world. What is the intrinsic value of gold?! Again, not much according to your metric. It throws off no income. It has a little bit of industrial use, some use in jewellery (which could use other metals equally well) and yet it has maintained its value for 5000 years. In Ancient Rome you could buy a fine toga for an ounce of gold. Now an ounce of gold will get you a nice Savile Row suit. Still don’t see it’s value? If I was forced to buy either Bitcoin or Tesla and could only collect in 5000 years, I know which I’d choose.