DAVOS, Switzerland -- After decades of breakneck economic growth centered on developing factories that churn out manufactured wares to the world, China is grappling with the attendant ills -- stark economic inequality, pollution-choked skies and conspicuous public bitterness over a corruption-laden system in which many of the spoils of growth have been captured by Communist Party officials and their cronies.
This reality is now so widely acknowledged -- even at the heights of the Party -- that China's leaders are now pressing a new model of economic development, one that aims to trade some growth for greater equality and environmental benefit. In Davos, where scores of Chinese officials are attending the World Economic Forum, the term “New Normal" is being thrown around with abandon to describe this new mode of development, one in which the benefits for ordinary people are supposed to be paramount, trumping the old obsession with growth at any cost.
"The best way to look at the Chinese context is the new normal," said Li Yang, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, an influential Beijing think tank affiliated with the government's ruling State Council, speaking here Wednesday morning on a forum panel. "In the past, we pursued speed, and with that we had low efficiency, low quality, damage to the environment and the waste of energy and resources. Therefore, that model cannot continue. The new normal means we have reduced the speed of growth while gaining higher efficiency and quality and better protection of the environment."
Key to the new model is an aggressive crackdown on corruption championed by China's President Xi Jinping in a campaign that has reached ultimate heights -- all the way up to Zhou Yongkang, who formerly headed China's state security apparatus. His arrest and expulsion from the Party in December signaled that, in the current atmosphere, no official may be beyond the reach of the anti-corruption push.
Yet the crackdown on corruption, along with the broader campaign to moderate China's still swift rate of growth has occasioned worries about short-term social stability. Corruption may be wasteful and socially noxious -- tales of officials spending their ill-gotten gains on junkets to the casinos of Macao are legion -- yet it also lubricates the wheels of business. Fear of corruption keeps money sitting on the sidelines.
And despite a concerted shift toward domestic-led consumption to reduce China's dependence on factory-produced exports, millions of poor farmers continue to stream to coastal cities in pursuit of manufacturing jobs. If the factories slow and jobs are lost, that could generate precisely the sort of public unhappiness that a more equal variety of growth is supposed to prevent.
"The change of the model from manufacturing and exports to service-focused will take a generation," said Victor Chu, chairman and CEO of Hong Kong-based First Eastern Investment Group, a private equity and venture capital firm specializing in manufacturing, infrastructure and real estate. "This is a transition. We should not give up this strategic advantage."
China's slowing growth trajectory was underscored this week with the release of government data showing that the economy grew at 7.3 percent during the last three months of 2014, and at 7.4 percent during the whole year. That was a smidgen below the 7.5 percent rate that China's officials generally portray as required to generate sufficient jobs, and it constituted the slowest pace of expansion in 24 years.
Some have suggested that talk of a New Normal is more a rhetorical framework than the genuine state of play. Speaking here at the forum, Gao Jifan, chairman and CEO of Trina Solar Ltd, a major maker of solar cells based in the industrial zone outside Shanghai, suggested that central government directives are overblown. The real action is at the local level, where local officials are dependent on continued real estate and industrial development to boost their tax bases, generate jobs and expand local business opportunities.
"At the end of the day, what you see is what local governments do," Gao said, noting that while investment in infrastructure has slowed, it is still running at more than double the overall pace of economic growth. "Local governments have been talking about major investments. The local government will all focus on investment. They focus on investment all the time."
Yet pressed to clarify, Gao tempered those comments, adding that the New Normal concept has changed the relationship of local governments with the central government in Beijing.
"In the past, local governments had power over the coffers and the investment platform," he said. "But now, with the new normal, the local governments will become more focused on the environment. This is a good thing for the overall development of China."