A model of Chongquing built from coins. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images
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The wild ride on China’s stock-market rollercoaster is far from over

China's admirers like to compare its Communist leadership to a meritocratic mandarin caste whose governance skills outstrip anything on offer in the west. But with £2trn wiped off the mainland exchanges in July, the picture is more complicated.

The scale and speed of China’s growth make it easy to overlook the way in which the country is still feeling its way forward. It may have become the world’s second-biggest economy, with 7 per cent growth officially reported for the second quarter of the year this past week, but it is still plagued by problems of expansion, from disparities in wealth to a huge environmental fallout. Recent weeks have thrown up another example of the dangers that can arise from insufficiently considered leaps into the future.

Admirers of China like to compare its Communist leadership to a meritocratic mandarin caste whose governance skills outstrip anything on offer from the fumbling administrations of western democracies. Yet the convulsions of the mainland stock markets over the past month – in which £2trn ($3.2trn) was wiped off the mainland exchanges before prices stabilised towards the end of the first week in July – show the authorities in a rather different light.

One might ask why Beijing was so intent on developing the country’s stock markets on the back of individual retail investors, many of them lacking experience in such techniques as margin trading, in which you buy shares using money borrowed from a broker. It might have been better from the start to have mobilised big institutional players, such as pension funds. The government, however, decided to encourage the growth of the largely retail markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen, in the hope that companies would raise capital there rather than seeking bank loans.

This was considered to be part of the modernisation of the financial system at the heart of the ambitious reform plan laid out by the Communist Party at the end of 2013. The programme claimed “the dynamism of the market” would be harnessed to move China towards a new economic paradigm, replacing its outdated reliance on the cheap labour, cheap credit and booming export markets that have fuelled growth for the past 37 years. The stock market was viewed as a way of achieving a more efficient allocation of capital and of mobilising household savings into corporate funding.

As it happened, there was a lot of cash looking for a home as a result of the downturn in the property market, historically a magnet for middle-class savings, and a squeeze on high-risk financial products outside the mainstream banking system. On top of that, the relaxation of rules on margin trading acted as an incentive to buy shares.

The result was a runaway bull market from 2014 onwards, with the number of individual investors increasing from 70 million to 90 million and the volume of officially sanctioned margin trading rising from £40bn to £220bn. Once the boom was under way, the government moved in with the second part of its strategy to develop China’s stock markets, introducing measures that facilitated the initial public offerings (IPOs) of 25 companies. Given that prices of newly floated firms often double on the first day of trading, the IPOs are hugely oversubscribed.

There were two snags. The first was that the boom assumed bubble proportions on the back of margin trading. The second was that so much cash was tied up in these IPOs that there was little left over to sustain demand for other shares. For short sellers, who make money by betting that prices will drop, it was a clear signal to act. Once they did and share prices fell, the remorseless logic of margin trading kicked in, with investors forced to sell their shares to repay brokers’ loans. The result was a 32 per cent drop in prices on the Shanghai Composite Index in less than a month.

The government moved in with supportive measures, including buying by state institutions, but these were initially unable to stop the slide. Only after increased support and adjusted margin requirements and with half of the quoted shares suspended did the market find a bottom and start to rise.

The impact of the gyrations can be overstated. Of the 90 million account holders, 30 million are estimated to hold only one or two stocks and to trade infrequently. The size of the stock markets is still quite small compared to the overall economy; the two are usually not co-related, so the broader impact of a downturn is limited. In addition, the Shanghai market is dominated by shares of state-backed companies that are less affected by stock movements than private firms. Even in the depths of the early-July decline, the Shanghai Composite Index was 70 per cent above its level a year earlier. Fears of a firestorm that would cause a crash in China and affect other economies were overblown.

Still, the turbulence that resulted in day-to-day swings up to the permitted limit of 10 per cent is likely to continue in short, sharp bursts. What is more important is the impact on the government’s broader economic policies. These face a great deal of opposition from vested interests that have done well out of the old economy and are facing not merely the challenge of change, but also the unrelenting anti-corruption campaign launched by Xi Jinping. They are likely to seize on events on the exchanges to point to the dangers of relaxing controls in the last major Leninist state on earth. Indeed, conspiracy theories on Chinese websites suggest that they may have been behind the short selling.

That will put the reformers on the back foot. Xi is a leader who ranks the preservation of the Communist Party first; if reform seems to present problems with maintaining authority and ensuring social stability, it will take second berth. That would have long-term effects on China’s evolution and may well be the most important aspect of this summer’s market roller coaster.

Jonathan Fenby’s book “Will China Dominate the 21st Century?” is published by Polity. He tweets as: @JonathanFenby

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times