Skip to content

How Much Capital in China Results from Corruption?

An analysis of capital resulting from corruption in China and its potential financial consequences.

[Dajun Editor’s comments: The major potential economic risks that China is facing today involve capital resulting from corruption. It may be a judgmental mistake to believe that capital resulting from corruption constitutes a small portion of the Chinese economy. For most ordinary Chinese people, who know little about the real situation, their benevolent thoughts may be far from the actual truth. Professor Yang Fan, one of a few who are relatively closer to reality, has included reasonable estimates in his article, although readers might not necessarily agree with his point of view.

Two different views coexist regarding how to judge capital resulting from corruption. Those who believe it as an inevitable consequence of economic reform want to offer amnesty to all criminals; those who strongly deem it to be illegal are concerned with the lasting search for accountability. This has become a historic puzzle for Chinese politicians to handle.]

China’s Economic Growth and the Influx Of International Speculative Capital

The Chinese economy is now on a path of long-term high growth, with society automatically driving itself forward. However, its potential growth depends on macroeconomic and social stability to be fully realized. Except for two issues, many tricky problems can either be solved or alleviated as long as the authorities and society make great efforts. The first issue results from the fact that China’s economy has become more and more reliant on the international market. Thus, an unexpected external attack or blockage might be sufficient to halt domestic progress. The second is if a financial crisis occurs. In order for such a crisis to take place, three preconditions must exist. 1) Long-term accumulation of potential crisis factors such as state banks’ bad debts. A financial crisis will occur if the debts are not handled properly. 2) Realistic superficial crisis factors such as the scale of speculative capital. 3) A political environment such as improper reform or macroeconomic policy.

The turning point in China’s economic growth will be the aging of China’s population over the next 10 to 15 years. During the 60 years after the People’s Republic of China was established, the economy has been growing at a high speed. Using an annual rate of seven percent, the economy has expanded 64 times, and it will be as much as 128 times in 10 more years. This is the longest period of sustained high-speed growth in human history. The top reason for the growth is not the reform of the system, but the steady high-speed growth of China’s population, creating a relatively younger population. When there are more young people, the savings rate will be higher. Thus the investment rate will be higher and the economy will grow at a higher rate. With the aging of the population, the savings rate and economic growth rate are certain to be lowered, exposing the problem created by banks’ bad debts. If domestic technology does not advance and domestic industrial production is controlled by foreign capital, when the profits are taken out of the country, a financial crisis will be inevitable.{mospagebreak}

The crisis may even come sooner. Some foreign [anti-China] forces don’t allow China to really rise, and don’t allow China to adjust the policies that may endanger their interests. They may use various measures to influence China’s policies. The most likely one could be spreading the "theory that China’s reform is going backward," and plotting for capital withdrawal.

How Much Foreign Capital Can Be Withdrawn?

The first part is foreign debt, which amounts to around several hundred billion U.S. dollars.

The second part is the profit that foreign investors earn in China. The current annual amount is US$30 billion, and in a few years it will reach US$ 60 billion, close to annual foreign direct investment; China will no longer have a net foreign capital inflow. Over the years, the return of foreign profit, which constitutes the discrepancy between GDP (gross domestic product) and GNP (gross national product), has become larger and larger. The problem is that most of the profit generated by foreign direct investment was not returned, but was kept within China in the form of reinvestment in Chinese yuan. The withdrawal of foreign capital, once it occurs, will not only include the annual yield of tens of billions of U.S. dollars, but also the total investment stock of hundreds of billion of U.S. dollars.

The third part is the reflux of international speculative capital. The more speculative capital that flows into China, the bigger the economic bubble it creates, and the larger the impact it will have when the capital is withdrawn. During the 1998 Asia Financial Crisis, there was an expectation that Chinese currency would depreciate, spurring a removal of foreign money out of China in an amount as high as US$20 billion. After 2000, with the rising expectation that the Chinese yuan would appreciate, together with the requirement to open the domestic market after China’s joining the WTO, massive international speculative capital rushed into China. From 2000 to 2002, the item of "statistical discrepancies" on the balance statement of international income and payments, a rough indicator of the magnitude and direction of international speculative capital, has been growing from a negative US$10 billion to a positive US$10 billion. Ever since 2002, our foreign exchange reserve has increased from US$300 billion to US$900 billion. After trade surplus and foreign direct investment are excluded, the rest can be counted as international speculative capital, which totals at least US$400 billion.

The fourth part is the domestic capital resulting from corruption, which substitutes for and merges with international speculative capital. One thing to note is that some of the foreign capital entering China is the reflux of domestic corruptive capital leaving China. Capital outflow is for money laundering; the Chinese economy and the favorable policy for foreign investment attract the inflow.{mospagebreak}

How Much of China’s Capital Results From Corruption?

According to the estimates in my article "Capitalization of Political Power" published in Chinese Reform Daily in 1988, over the 20 years of economic reform, the money siphoned off as a result of political power amounts to 30 trillion yuan (US$3.75), which includes graft from the agriculture sector, the business sector (including deductions in domestic and international trade), dual-tracking of prices of the means of production, dual-tracking of exchange rates, stock IPOs, and judicial corruption. For the seven years after 1988, the bad money generated from the privatization of state-own enterprises and from the real estate industry should add up to no less than 15 trillion yuan (US$1.9 trillion).

Hu Angang [translator’s note: Hu Angang is an economist in China] summarized the systematic economic losses from corruption into 10 categories based on the investigation and punishment published by the government. The economic losses from corruption is defined as the economic losses resulting from various government agencies or public sectors abusing their public power within the system so as to profiteer for groups of people within the system. Between 1999 and 2001 alone, the annual losses accounted for 14.5 percent of GDP.

Take the list of economic losses from corruption for 1998 as an example:

Officials’ corruption, bribery and embezzlement—2.0 billion yuan (US$0.25 billion)

Smuggling—80 billion yuan (US$10 billion)

Monopolistic sectors such as electricity—5.0 billion yuan (US$0.625 billion)

Pharmaceutical industry—10 billion yuan (US$1.25 billion)

Tax evasion—10 billion yuan (US$1.25 billion)

Public sector expenditure including the fiscal, financial and food sectors—100 billion yuan (US$12.5 billion)

Corruption in public investment—6.0 billion yuan (US$0.75 billion)

Privatization of state-owned enterprises and bad state bank loans—60 billion yuan (US$7.5 billion)

Arbitrary fee collection in the public sector—10 billion yuan (US$1.25 billion){mospagebreak}

Financial fraud—10 billion yuan (US$1.25 billion)

The total of economic losses from corruption was 300 billion yuan (US$37.5 billion), and this is only the part that can be investigated. If the ratio of the investigable part is 30 percent, the actual total money from corruption will be 1.0 trillion yuan (US$125 billion). For the eight years between 1998 and 2005, we can roughly estimate this amount to be 8.0 trillion yuan (US$1.0 trillion).

We have not counted the private luxury consumption for which people applied for reimbursement from the state funds. As I once estimated, the underground transactions (such as the sex industry) in 1998 were about 500 billion yuan (US$62.5 billion), 300 billion yuan (US$37.5 billion) of which were reimbursed by state funds. For 10 years, the total amount of reimbursed private luxury consumption would have been 3.0 trillion yuan (US$375 billion). Combining that with corruption in education circles, the medical profession, and mass media, I estimate that total money from corruption amounts to 60 trillion yuan (US$7.5 trillion) for the 30 years since the economic reform started.

In 2005, China’s GDP totaled 17 trillion yuan (US$2.13 billion), with the growth part being 1.6 trillion yuan (US$200 billion). The scale of capital from corruption, if calculated as 20 percent of GDP, should be 3.4 trillion yuan (US$425 billion), which is twice as much as the GDP growth part. We may compare the total of capital from corruption, 60 trillion yuan (US$7.5 trillion) over 30 years, with other economic stock variables. The total residential bank deposits are 14 trillion yuan (US$1.75 trillion), and the total market value of the stocks of listed companies is just over 2.0 trillion yuan (US$1.25 billion).

This capital from corruption includes about US$30 billion that is transferred out of China every year so as to avoid foreign exchange regulation. For 10 years, the total capital outflow was US$300 billion, which is so-called flight capital. By definition, flight capital means the transfer across the border of income from illegal sources, including that earned from smuggling, trafficking drugs, money laundering, tax evasion, and foreign exchange evasion. The government investigated and punished US$30 billion of flight capital. We estimate that because of foreign exchange regulation, 90 percent of the money from corruption could not leave China. The money leaving China and flowing back into the country is called reinvestment after money laundering.

Net Domestic Capital Outflow and Turnaround of Speculative Capital

Flight capital is not the same as capital outflow. Flight capital, with a total scale of US$400 billion (and there is also 10 times more capital from corruption waiting for flight), is an illegal capital outflow, while the net domestic capital outflow is due to the fact that domestic saving exceeds investment. The influx of international capital, including foreign direct investment, international speculative capital, and domestic corruptive capital joining international speculative capital after money laundering, is influenced by China’s macroeconomic and political conditions.{mospagebreak}

Capital outflow includes mainly the currency capital, including US$900 billion of foreign exchange reserves, US$400 billion of legitimate domestic residents and business deposits, and US$400 billion of capital from corruption, for a total of US$1.7 trillion. At the same time, China has attracted US$600 billion of direct investment, which consists of capital goods including equipment and intellectual property rights. The international speculative capital in the form of currency flowing into China, which only became significant after 2000, amounts to US$400 billion. So the total capital influx is US$1.0 trillion. By reckoning, there is a net outflow of capital from China with a total scale of US$700 billion.

Although it seems against common sense, it is actually not against economic principles. According to macroeconomic equilibrium, domestic savings should be equal to investment. If savings is less than investment, there will be a net capital inflow. Ever since 1993, China’s domestic saving has been surpassing investments continuously every year, so there can only be net capital outflow. If China continues to attract foreign capital goods using favorable policies or accepts the entrance of international speculative capital, the domestic capital surplus will be squeezed out in the form of foreign exchange. It has only been at great risk and low yield to circulate more than US$1.0 trillion on the international market. Even if the money was invested in a safe place, such as in U.S. Bonds, the annual yield is only 4.0 percent. However, foreign capital goods when invested in China will generate at least a 20 percent profit.

In other words, China’s economy has been out of balance with the international economy for a long time. For China, the benefit is to gain in export-oriented manufacture and more employment, at the cost of low capital yield. Although the benefit still outweighs the cost at present, the situation will be different once the international environment deteriorates. Over the past 10 years, China’s growing exports have covered up the reality of net capital out flow; international speculative capital has covered up the flight of domestic capital from corruption. The real danger is the capital that will leave sooner or later. If it flows back in an intensified way under certain circumstances, a financial crisis will be unavoidable.

Yang Fan is Professor at China University of Political Science and Law.

Translated by CHINASCPOE from