“The West still hasn’t understood how profoundly China’s rise has changed the international financial system,” professor and economist Christoph Trebesch told Germany’s Spiegel in an interview following the release of a new report on China’s “hidden debt,” which Trebesch co-authored at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
According to the report, the amount of foreign debt held by China is 50% greater than previously thought, making it the largest official creditor in the world. More than twice the size of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank combined, says The Economist.
The value of China’s outbound credit lines has surged from virtually nil in 2000 to over $700 billion today but China has kept much of that debt “hidden” by not reporting it to bodies like the IMF. The Fund’s managing director Christine Lagarde has highlighted the lack of transparency in Chinese loans many times before.
Credit rating agencies like Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s aren’t privy to the debt either because they only track sovereign loans issued by banks or bondholders while most of China’s foreign loans are issued by the government itself.
Opponents of China’s lending practices have long accused Beijing of engaging in debt diplomacy, with Xi Jinping’s famous Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) frequently criticized as “economic colonialism” that risks trapping developing nations in debt. Djibouti, for example, is carrying a Chinese debt equivalent to 70% of its GDP. China’s top 50 borrowers owe a value equivalent to over 15% of their respective GDPs.
The world’s seen this before, in the 1970’s, when banks from the U.S. and Europe issued commodity-backed loans to emerging economies in Africa and Latin America. When those commodity prices tanked the economies spiralled deeper into debt.
According to The Economist, many of the recipients of new loans from China were also granted debt relief by Western creditors after defaulting on previous loans. China, too, has offered restructuring plans and write offs on over 140 of its foreign loans in the past decade, but other times it has seized strategic assets as collateral – such as the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.
As China seeks to rein in the risk of its own domestic debt and offset the drag of its slowing economy, the country’s outbound lending might slowdown. Some debtors, meanwhile, have already started to pushback against China’s aggressive lending schemes. But there’s still a lot of Chinese-issued sovereign debt out there waiting to mature. Apparently, about 50% more than we realize.
Your regular Saturday columnist Clay Chandler is in Aspen this week, preparing for Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech forum, which kicks off on Monday. Let me suggest Sino Saturday readers check out our next Fortune live event – the inaugural Fortune Global Sustainability Forum – where we’re gathering global leaders in China’s lush Yunnan province, September 4-6, to dissect how business can ensure sustainable growth. See the agenda here, and register for a spot here.
Economy and Trade
Domestic debt too. China is grappling with a hidden debt problem of its own. Estimates suggest provincial governments are carrying twice as much debt as official records show and, this week, China’s various economic regulators came together to issue new guidelines on how to deleverage the regional administrations. Their plan? Borrow more. Washington Post
Trade on the line. Trade talks resumed between Washington and Beijing as the two sides connected by phone this week. The dial-in was the first contact the opposing deal makers have had since President Trump and President Xi called a truce in the trade after meeting during the G20, on June 29. However, a new face has joined China’s trade team: Commerce Minister Zhong Shan, who is seen as a Party hardliner and is feared to have a tougher stance on trade. Bloomberg
Relations still frosty. Days after the ice-breaking phone call, President Trump took to Twitter to accuse China of “letting [the U.S.] down” by not purchasing enough agricultural products. “Hopefully they will start soon!” Trump tweeted, but reportedly the Chinese side don’t believe they’ve made any commitments to buying more agricultural goods. The Hill
Sports shorts. China’s best-selling sportswear brand Anta denied allegations levied against it by short seller Muddy Waters this week. In two releases spread across two days, Muddy Waters released a 106-page takedown report on Anta’s business practices. Anta’s Hong Kong listed stock fell over 7% after the first release, Monday. Trading has since stabilized, but the company’s share price has not recovered entirely. Caixin
Innovation and Tech
China’s tech stars. Shanghai’s new Nasdaq-style STAR board was designed to convince pre-profit tech firms to list in China instead of venturing to markets overseas. This week, nine of the 25 inaugural STAR companies destined to list on the new tech board announced their IPO pricings. Between them, the nine companies expect to raise $2.7 billion. TechNode
Reprieve or no reprieve? After Trump told Xi at the G20 he would allow U.S. companies to sell to Huawei, reports claimed that the Chinese telecom maker had been issued a “reprieve,” but “reprieve” is not quite right. According to comments made by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the situation is largely unchanged. Huawei remains on the dreaded “entity list” and U.S. companies will have to request permission before engaging in business with Huawei. These are the same conditions as before. The Wall Street Journal
Have a look-in. State-owned telecoms maker ZTE – the one which almost collapsed last year when Washington slapped sanctions on it – has opened a cybersecurity center in Belgium, inviting external parties to review its source code and verify its security. ZTE has similar centers in Italy and China. Caixin
Developing developers. Apple has opened its first China designer and developer accelerator in Shanghai to help local developers create new apps. The Cupertino company runs a similar center in Bangalore, India, which it opened two years ago. Currently there are over 2.5 million developers across Greater China making apps for the App Store, collectively earning over $29 billion in App Store sales. TechCrunch
In Case You Missed It
Politics and Policy
The bill is dead. After weeks of protests, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam declared a bill that would permit extraditions to mainland China “dead.” However, protestors continue to demand Lam formally withdraws the bill, which is currently suspended. Lam’s bungling of the extradition bill has been criticized by local lawmakers but Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong this week said that the central government continues to support the embattled leader. South China Morning Post
Friends in arms. Despite strong objections from China, Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen visited the U.S. this week, stopping in New York for two days on her way to visit Taiwan’s political allies in the Caribbean. Tsai’s jaunt in the U.S., which comes a week after Washington approved a $2 billion arms sales to the self-governed island, is not an official visit. Tsai made a similar transit through California last year. South China Morning Post