Not even the worst economic crisis in 80 years could halt the growth of China’s logistics industry. The world’s rising economic superpower still put up growth numbers that aroused the envy of the rest of the world. Beijing continued to invest enormous sums of money into massive infrastructure projects, building new airports, railway lines, expressways, and intermodal centres. China’s full-speed march into modernity appeared far less affected by the dire news emanating from other corners of the world than many of the more developed regions.
Logistics, the industry that greases the wheels of the great Chinese economy, continued to grow at a rapid pace. Yet to argue that the 2008-9 was a uniformly positive year for the industry would ignore several troubling signs. Port throughput growth fell nearly everywhere in China over the period; and no place suffered a steeper growth decline than the Pearl River Delta, China’s most developed economic region.
Furthermore, upon closer inspection China’s logistics industry still has significant structural problems that may undermine future development.
Logistics still comprise over 18 percent of GDP, a figure more than double that in developed economies. The industry suffers from under-agglomeration, and many registered logistics companies operating in China lack professional standards and operational efficiency.
Despite tremendous government effort to spread China’s newfound prosperity to less-developed regions, the gap between China’s coastal area and its interior remains large - and growing. The country’s varied economic regions remain less integrated with each other than with various parts of the outside world. Bureaucratic hassles—such as fines levied upon inter-provincial trade—have prevented the massive Chinese economy from operating as a cohesive unit hindering the emergence of national brands able to compete on a global stage.
Aware that suboptimal logistics performance threatens to obstruct overall economic development, Beijing has expended enormous effort in rectifying these problems. Investment in transport infrastructure received a jolt by a CNY 586bn stimulus package, and the Chinese government confidently claims that a nationwide high-speed rail network will be in place by 2020. New airports, expressways, and container terminals will also affect the logistics landscape in coming years.
In addition, reforms such as the Fuel Tax Law have indicated a growing willingness for Beijing to consider green solutions in its logistics industry policy. The coming years are likely to witness an increased emphasis on environmentally-sound practices, a move that could lead to greater industry consolidation as smaller firms struggle to compete in a rapidly changing landscape.
Few observers expect the global economic slowdown to have reversed itself fully by the end of 2010, and correcting structural flaws in the logistics industry will require time, even by the standards of the Chinese government. The industry showed impressive resiliency in the wake of natural disaster in 2008, overcoming both the unseasonably cold weather in the winter and the tragic Sichuan earthquake in May.
Betting against its ability to overcome an economic slowdown would similarly be unwise – even though the World Bank now forecasts that a recovery independent of stimulus spending is likely to require a broad structural change in the composition of GDP growth drivers.