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China’s Top 10 Business Stories in 2011

Courtesy of Patrick Chovanec

As the year comes to a close, and we look forward to 2012, I continue the tradition I started last year and offer a brief look at the top stories that shaped China’s business and economic climate in 2011:

1. High-Speed Rail.  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times — China’s ambitious high-speed rail program embodied the highest highs and the lowest lows the country experienced this year.  In January, President Obama cited the planned 20,000km network in his annual State of the Union address as a prime example of how America need to catch up to the Chinese.  As if to prove his point, June saw the grand opening of the much-heralded Beijing-Shanghai line, timed to coincide with the Communist Party’s 90th anniversary celebrations.   But even before then, there were signs of trouble on the horizon, starting in February when the powerful head of China’s railway ministry — the project’s godfather — was abruptly fired as part of a massive corruption scandal.  Then a crash on a line near Wenzhou, in which at least 35 people were killed, unleashed a wave of fury on the Chinese internet, forcing the government to re-think the entire project amid charges of cover-up and sloppy construction.  By November, with high-speed trains running at chronically low capacity and construction debts piling up, the railway ministry was asking Beijing for a rumored RMB 800 billion (US$ 126 billion) bailout just to pay the money it owed suppliers.

2.  Inflation.  Few issues preoccupied the average Chinese citizen — or Chinese policymakers — this year as much as rapidly rising prices.   The consumer inflation rate, which began the year just shy of 5%,rose to 6.5% by July.  The increase was led by food prices, particularly pork – a staple part of the Chinese diet — which skyrocketed by more than 50%.  Keenly aware of the potential for popular unrest, Beijing made containing prices its top economic priority — even if that meant reining in growth.  Throughout the year, the central bank repeatedly raised interest rates and bank reserve requirements, in an effort to bring the pace of credit expansion back under control.  The powerful state planning bureau leaned heavily on Chinese companies not to raise prices, and even hit consumer goods giant Unilever with a stiff antitrust fine for publicly discussing possible price hikes.  While CPI did decline to 4.2% by…
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