All eyes are on China this November as the country prepares for the once in a decade leadership transition within the ruling Communist Party.
The world's second biggest economy has undergone a massive transformation within the last 10 years. From rapid urbanization and economic growth to social and political development, China has marked many milestones and firsts in the past decade — highlighting its significance on the global stage.
With this in mind, we look at six major changes that China has undergone since the last leadership transition in 2002. Focusing on factors like economic development to changes in consumer behavior, we look at how big of an impact China's transformation has had on the rest of the world.
Rapid Economic Growth
Riding the wave of rapid economic expansion, China's growth engine has remained strong over the past decade. China's economy grew from being the 5th largest in the world in 2002 to 2nd only to the U.S. by 2010.
The country has seen an average annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 10.6 percent since the last leadership transition in November 2002. Yearly economic growth was in the double digits from 2003 to 2007 and hit a high of 14.2 percent in 2007 — levels not seen since the early 1990s. However, like the rest of the world, China was impacted by the global financial crisis in 2008 and saw its GDP fall to 9.6 percent that year. Since then, the superpower has been able to maintain strong economic growth of over 9 percent, but it continues to be plagued by fears of a hard landing. GDP in the second quarter of this year fell to 7.6 percent, hitting its slowest pace in three years.
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Many economists now expect China's annual GDP to fall below 8 percent in 2012, with even Beijing setting a target of 7.5 percent growth — marking China's first drop to that level since 1999. Uncertainty over how the new leadership will deal with slowing growth is intensifying and several analysts have told CNBC that policymakers may be taking their eye off the ball when it comes to the economy to prepare for the once-a-decade leadership transition. The politics involved in the government change may be slowing the policymaking in China and deterring the government from making significant economic decisions, according to experts.
Economic development has led to rising incomes in China as workers demand higher wages to cope with soaring living costs in major cities.
In a 10 year period, the per capita income of urban residents rose from $827 in 2001 to $3,711 in 2011, according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China. That's a nearly 350 percent increase. China's average minimum wage has been rising an average 12.5 percent annually from 2006 to 2010, and the government announced earlier this year that minimum wages should grow by an average of at least 13 percent in the five years to 2015.
Rising wages has become a major concern for local and international manufacturers betting on "cheap" Chinese labor for growth. Many are moving production inland to save on costs, while others are looking into alternative manufacturing hubs in Asia like Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. For example, Apple supplier Foxconn, in the news recently for labor unrest at its Chinese factories, announced in August that it would invest $10 billion in Indonesia to tap into one of the cheapest labor forces in Asia.
Stocks Outperform in a Decade
China's battered stock market, which was down more than 20 percent in 2011, and is lower by nearly 6 percent so far this year, has made headlines recently for being the worst performing major equity market in Asia — a sharp contrast to China's growth story.
Still, taking into account the total gains made over the past decade paints a more bullish picture. The Shanghai Composite index rose 35 percent from 2002 to 2011, far outperforming the U.S. benchmark S&P 500 which only rose 9 percent in the same period. But, despite the substantial 10-year gain, it hasn't been all smooth sailing for Chinese equities. The Shanghai Composite fell about 65 percent to 2,016 in October 2008 during the global financial crisis from a peak level of 5,725 in September 2007. While stocks continued to gain ground up until August 2009, it has been in a steady decline since.
Despite the downtrend in the last three years, several analysts are still optimistic about a turnaround in Chinese equities on the growing possibility of more easing by the government to spur growth. Japanese brokerage Nomura predicted in July that Chinese stocks could climb as much as 20 percent by the first quarter of 2013 after having bottomed in early June. Meanwhile, the notable head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management — Jim O'Neill — said in September that Chinese equities present the "most attractive" investment opportunity in all of the BRIC markets.
By sheer numbers, China is experiencing a technology boom unlike anywhere else in the world. Its internet population surpassed half a billion users in 2011 — making it by far the world's biggest online market. That's a more than 362 percent increase since 2005. Even then, the internet usage penetration remained at 38 percent in 2011, presenting further growth potential.
About four out of 10 Chinese use the internet, accounting for a total of 538 million users, according to state-run agency China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). That population is set to jump to 700 million users by 2015, according to the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), which is more than double the entire population of the U.S. The country's fast growing online market provides a big opportunity for retailers and BCG predicts that China's online retail sales will triple to more than $360 billion by 2015 to make it the world's largest online retail market.
Smartphone makers are also looking to increase their presence in the country's mobile phone market. Nearly 70 percent of China's internet users connected to the web through their handsets in 2011, according to the CNNIC.
Mega Rich Get Richer
China's billionaire count has surged in the past decade, spurred on by the country's rapid economic development.
In 2001, China had only one billionaire, but that number has jumped to 251 this year —according to the Shanghai based Hurun Report — making it second only to the U.S. in the world when it comes to most billionaires. Billionaires account for just 1.3 percent of wealth individuals with $30 million or more in China, but control nearly a quarter of the ultra-rich group's wealth of $1.58 trillion, according to research firm Wealth-X. These billionaires are worth an average of almost $2.6 billion each.
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China's consumption and construction boom are two of the major drivers of wealth for the super-rich with a majority of billionaires counting on property as one of their main sources of wealth. The public listing of companies has also made business owners billionaires overnight. But recently, the stock market has also caused China's billionaires to lose almost a third of their combined wealth with the benchmark Shanghai Composite falling 20 percent from August 2011 to July 2012, according to Wealth-X. In total, the population of China's wealthy with assets worth $30 million and above shrank by 2.3 percent in the past year, while their combined wealth decreased nearly 7 percent to $1.6 trillion.
Consumer spending in China has seen double digit growth for a decade, creating a path for the country to become the world's biggest consumer market by 2015, according to government authorities.
Its fast growing consumer class of about 130 million has given a big boost to markets from retail and housing to travel and other discretionary sectors. China's consumer retail sales, for example, are expected to surpass $5 trillion in 2015, according to Commerce Minister Chen Deming. Rising incomes amid rapid urbanization are major reasons behind China's consumption boom and the World Bank expects the growth to continue as income per capita climbs to more than triple to $16,000 by 2030 from about $5,000 now.
Businesses like carmakers, luxury retailers, and hotel chains have been flocking to the world's second largest economy to target Chinese consumers. Italian fashion house Prada, for example, counts on China as its biggest market with 30 percent of its global sales in the fiscal year that ended in January 2012 coming from the country. The luxury retailer has 19 stores in China, but plans to open up to 15 more this year. The world's largest premium carmaker BMW, meanwhile, increased sales of its flagship BMW brand in China by 55 percent in September compared to the previous year, while its Mini cars saw sales jump a whopping 121 percent in the same period.
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But not all retailers have had a similar level of success in China. Home Depot, the world's largest home improvement chain, struggled to win over Chinese shoppers with its U.S. style do-it-yourself model. The U.S retailer announced in September that it will close all seven of its big box stores to focus on specialty stores and e-commerce in China.
- By CNBC's Rajeshni Naidu-Ghelani.