Six things China can do to become the world’s most entrepreneurial economy

Jack Ma is one of China’s millions of businessmen and women. EPA/Paul Hilton

After decades of the fastest economic growth in the world, China’s economy has started to slow down. This is perhaps inevitable, given an average annual growth rate of around 10% was sustained for almost thirty years following the economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s.

But one area where China continues to develop is in the number of private enterprises being started. China simplified the process for registering businesses in February 2014, and since then there has been a huge leap in the number of new registrations. According to the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, there were 3.65m new registrations in 2014, an increase of 46% on 2013.

These private businesses have driven China’s economic growth in recent decades, and their future prospects play an important role in the country’s continued transition to becoming the world’s largest economy.

A growing private sector

Before the recent jump in business registrations, China had already transitioned from having a mostly state sector economy to a private sector one. By 2012, the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, which registers new businesses across China, reported that there were more than 50m active registered private businesses, 40m of which were smaller “household enterprises”. This is a huge shift from 1978 – the year economic reforms began – when there were only 140,000 registered private businesses, generating less than 1% of economic activity.

The private sector now accounts for at least three-quarters of the Chinese economy, and possibly more. Private businesses create 90% of new jobs and are the major employer in many parts of China.

Meanwhile, as the private sector has grown, the state sector has shrunk. In China’s cities, where most people now live, China’s national statistics show that jobs in state-owned enterprises have dropped from over 70% of total employment in 1990 to 25% in 2012.

What is striking about this transformation is that it has been recent. The private sector only really took off in the early 2000s, following widespread privatisation of smaller state-owned enterprises and collectively-owned rural township and village enterprises. In the 1980s and much of the 1990s, private entrepreneurs found it easier to register as collective (that is, state-owned) enterprises than private businesses, discouraging open entrepreneurship.

Small businesses are seeing huge growth. Chris/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

The role of government

The emergence of private businesses as the driver of China’s economic growth over the past ten years has been one of the most important structural changes in the country since the start of the current reform period. It constitutes a fundamental restructuring of the economy’s ownership away from the state and into private hands. This is a major shift that removes one of the core tenets of the Chinese communist party – that the state owns the means of production.

However, a move from state to private ownership does not mean that the government, and party, have become side players in China’s economy. The state continues to play an important role, in shaping markets, supporting state-owned enterprises and in creating the wider conditions within which businesses grow.

Many private enterprises, especially those traded on China’s own stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen, are actually controlled by the state through shareholdings and informal means of maintaining influence. Within this context, the Chinese state and Communist Party continue to prefer and support state-owned enterprises, offering them market opportunities, finance, political support and sponsorship that is not available to private entrepreneurs.

Continuing growth

Continued private sector development will determine China’s future economic growth. In order to enable this, the Chinese government should encourage private sector development in the following six ways:

  1. Create the right macroeconomic conditions. The Chinese government can continue to create the wider conditions for economic growth. For example the right monetary policy and continued investment in infrastructure will create opportunities for entrepreneurs to grow their businesses. Ensuring continued stimulation of the economy, and opening up markets to more and more transparent competition will particularly help the private sector to grow.

  2. Put the private sector first. The government can ensure that some of this wider macroeconomic development is targeted specifically at the private sector. For example, more contracts for major projects could be awarded to private rather than state-owned enterprises, and government procurement could be opened up more to the private sector. There is a need to loosen the close relationship between the state and the large enterprises it owns and gives preference to.

  3. Support as well as sponsor entrepreneurs. The state can give more targeted support to the private sector, both directly to enable growth and indirectly through policy and regulation that is friendly to private businesses. There is also a role for the state to actively and publicly sponsor entrepreneurship, advocating for start-ups and private ownership as a valuable and positive career option.

  4. Protect property. The state can reinforce protection of private property, more actively enforcing the 2007 national Property Law. In particular, upholding private property rights in the courts, and finding mechanisms to help entrepreneurs clarify and register their rights would be a positive step. In addition, and as part of the current anti-corruption campaign, more could be done to prevent expropriation from private enterprises by officials.

  5. Invest in new and growing businesses. Most new jobs and wealth are created by a small group of fast-growing new ventures that scale up soon after start-up. More and better funds could be made available to private entrepreneurs running these types of business. China’s state banks continue to prefer state enterprises and to be less competitive when lending to the private sector. A strong investment system focused on private enterprises would also inject much-needed capital that would stimulate business growth.

  6. Support and fund innovation in the private sector. Developing a stronger national infrastructure for innovation that closely involves private enterprises would create a more competitive economy. Much of China’s research and development is funded in state-owned enterprises and government ministries. Opening this up to private businesses, and finding ways to fund private enterprises would create a much more innovative economy.