Over much of the last four decades, China's economy has ballooned, growing to become the world's second-largest economic power behind the United States, when measured by GDP. Yet alongside the rapid growth came mounting local government debt. While foreign observers have long recognized China’s local government debt as a risk, only recently did the Chinese Communist Party call out the problem as alarming.
Why have central authorities allowed local government debt to grow with such little direct intervention? The answer to this question has much to do with a “grand bargain” between China's central government and localities during the 1994 fiscal recentralization reform, according to a new study, "China’s Local Government Debt: The Grand Bargain," published in the January issue of The China Journal. The study’s co-authors are Stanford political scientist Jean Oi, a senior fellow at FSI and director of the China Program at APARC, Adam Liu, a former doctoral student of Oi, and Yi Zhang.
The Origins of China's Massive Local Government Debt
The 1994 reform left localities with a tremendous fiscal gap. But then Beijing in fact gave localities enough autonomy to seek funding independently and the green light to create new backdoor financing institutions that counteracted the impact of fiscal decentralization, show Oi and her colleagues. They call this dynamic a “grand bargain.” The bargain’s purpose was to garner regional cooperation in fiscal and financial recentralization campaigns. The result, as the co-authors document, was far from the intended outcome. The policy resulted in greater decentralization, as local leaders used backdoor financing to meet expenditure responsibilities and bolster local development.
The study offers a fresh interpretation of the political economy surrounding the 1994 fiscal reform and a new understanding of the grand bargain, in which secretive financing was the quid pro quo offered to localities to sustain their incentive for local state-led growth after 1994. Oi and her colleagues draw upon municipal and county data as well as interviews and memoirs of key party leaders, architects of the 1994 fiscal reform, to support their assertions about the dynamics of China's economic rise and the local debt problem. Their findings highlight the "paradoxical political dynamics" of China’s political economy. As the 1994 fiscal reform recentralized tax revenues, "countervailing policies substantially promoted decentralization and fiscal empowerment of localities and decreased the transparency of local financial arrangements."
The grand bargain led to China's continued growth. The drawback, however, was that this economic growth has been accompanied by the accumulation of local government debt with little transparency and central control. When the global financial crisis impacted growth rates, local deficits and debts spiked. In response, Beijing began to shut down backdoor financing and opened front-door options that were transparent and under the control of national authorities — but with limited success.
Reining in Local Government Financing Vehicles
The researchers posit that "only beginning in 2017 did the Communist Party’s own Central Leading Group on Finance and Economic Affairs and various government-related media begin to label local government debt as a threat to the economy, raising the alarm bells by calling it a 'gray rhino,' a likely high-impact threat that was being ignored." Why, then, didn’t Beijing quickly put a stop to local government debt? Why did central authorities wait until 2015 to put measures in place, and wait even longer to identify local government debt as an economic threat?
Oi and her colleagues explain that studies of policy implementation and regulation in China tell us that the national government faces information asymmetry problems, where localities can subvert upper-level directives because the center has imperfect knowledge of what local agents are doing. Such subversion is most likely when local interests are not aligned with Beijing’s. Now, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the question is whether the pendulum will swing back toward more tolerance of local debt for the sake of economic growth.
All indications, the authors agree, suggest that during COVID-19 and its aftermath, especially as China also has vowed to win and maintain the fruits of the battle against poverty “at all costs,” localities are going to need extra resources, borrowed or not. The center’s pendulum, at least for now, is swinging further away from fiscal discipline toward local incentives and growth.
Evading Institutional Reforms
Oi and her colleagues contend that the expansion of local government debt is a feature of China's developmental model, which aims to "circumvent rather than tackle difficult institutional reform, kicking the can down the road, opting for an easier fix to avoid the potentially high political costs.”
The authors' primary takeaway is therefore that local government debt in China is not a local problem. Similar to other developing nations that depend upon local partners, China faces a dual-commitment problem: "growing the local economy without debt requires the central state to simultaneously commit to respecting its local agents’ access to and control over the fruits of local development (of which local fiscal resources are the most crucial part), while exercising credible fiscal discipline over precisely the same set of local agents that the center seeks to incentivize.”
For nearly three decades, Chinese central authorities have relied on the grand bargain to boost the nation's economic might. Oi and her colleagues reveal that the problem of local government debt reverberates to the highest echelons of the Chinese state decision makers and continues to present strategic challenges for the economic juggernaut.