China’s Shadow-banking system is collapsing (and with its China’s economic-fuel – the credit impulse), it’s equity market has become a slow-motion train-wreck, its economic data has been serially disappointing for two years, and its bond market is starting to show signs of serious systemic risk as corporate defaults in 2018 hit a record high.
But, if you were to read the Chinese press, none of that would be evident, as The New York Times reports a government directive sent to journalists in China on Friday named six economic topics to be “managed,” as the long hand of China’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ have now reached the business media in an effort to censor negative news about the economy.
The New York Times lists the topics that are to be “managed” as:
- Worse-than-expected data that could show the economy is slowing.
- Local government debt risks.
- The impact of the trade war with the United States.
- Signs of declining consumer confidence
- The risks of stagflation, or rising prices coupled with slowing economic growth
- “Hot-button issues to show the difficulties of people’s lives.”
The government’s new directive betrays a mounting anxiety among Chinese leaders that the country could be heading into a growing economic slump. Even before the trade war between the United States and China, residents of the world’s second-largest economy were showing signs of keeping a tight grip on their wallets. Industrial profit growth has slowed for four consecutive months, and China’s stock market is near its lowest level in four years.
“It’s possible that the situation is more serious than previously thought or that they want to prevent a panic,” said Zhang Ming, a retired political science professor from Renmin University in Beijing.
Mr. Zhang said the effect of the expanded censorship strategy could more readily cause people to believe rumors about the economy. “They are worried about chaos,” he added. “But in barring the media from reporting, things may get more chaotic.”
The directive didn’t appear to affect run-of-mill daily coverage of economic data, which could still be widely found online in China on Friday. Instead, the directive appeared to be aimed at easing the overall tone. Indeed, another notice sent on Friday instructed online news outlets to remove comments at the bottom of news articles that “bad-mouth the Chinese economy.”
One wonders if any “badmouthers” will automatically be accused of working for the Kremlin as is the case in the US, or simply arrested and never heard from again.
The topics that are now non grata pertain to “China’s economic downturn,” “China’s stagflation,” “new refugees,” “consumption downgrading” and “other harmful remarks that criticize the development prospects of China,” according to a copy of the notice reviewed by The Times. Consumption downgrading refers to Chinese consumers looking for ways to spend less.
What is ironic is that even before the crackdown, China’s data was already very much suspect. Mark Williams, chief Asia economist of Capital Economics, said the firm expects the Chinese economy to slow down to 5 to 5.5 percent from 6.9 percent last year. Despite the lower forecast, he stressed that it was “not a weak number” for the Chinese economy.
“One of the problems is there’s a lot of doubt about official Chinese data,” Mr. Williams said. “And when they come out with these directives, it just raises more questions.”
Censors have also erased online commentary that contained the phrases “consumption downgrade,” taxes, debt and unemployment, according to the Journalism and Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong, which monitors censorship on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media service.
One post that was removed by censors said: “The bad news in the market is exploding, pessimistic viewpoints are spreading, many retail investors are in despair.” Another read: “Will the emergence of robots free up labor or cause unemployment and poverty?”
And, as NYT notes, China is wasting no time in implementing the new directive. On Wednesday, Phoenix News Media, a Hong Kong-based outlet with big operations in mainland China, said the Chinese authorities had instructed it to “rectify” its news portal, ifeng.com. The Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s main internet regulator, said that Phoenix had “disseminated illegal and harmful information, distorted news headlines and shared news information in violation of rules.”
Two weeks earlier, NetEase, an online news portal, said it had to suspend updating its financial platform “because of serious problems.”
All of which is funny because in America, one can bash the economy, the deep state and the dysfunctional status quo all they want… as long as they are ready to be blacklisted as “Russian operatives”, get banned from YouTube and Twitter and watch their advertisers flee as a result of peer pressure. Meanwhile, if anyone asks what the true state of the economy is, the answer every single time is “just look at the stock market.”