By Mark Rogers

This street 观前街 Guan Qian Jie, in Suzhou, near Shanghai, is full of Gold shops

This street 观前街 Guan Qian Jie, in Suzhou, near Shanghai, is full of Gold shops

During the seven days of the Chinese New Year’s holidays, people have bought 3.62 billion yuan’s worth (0.5761 billion dollars) of gold in Beijing, 15.5% more than last year. It was also reported that just two shops in Beijing during this same period managed to shift 1.5 tonnes ( Chinese source). At we have previously reported on the expansive buying of gold in China in our article “Chinese queue at malls to beat Bernanke’s inflation with gold“.

John Stepek, editor of Money Week, recently pointed out that “Chinese citizens don’t have many options as far as saving their money goes – you can’t get an above-inflation return from your bank account, and the local stock market is a casino.”

What is happening? And why is it happening?

As with the eurozone, the flight – on this scale – into gold indicates extreme economic uncertainty and a desire to shore up one’s savings in the only real safe haven. Yet isn’t China supposed to be an economic powerhouse? Isn’t Beijing planning to float the renminbi (yuan), in an attempt to replace the dollar? Isn’t the Chancellor of the Exchequer actively working with the authorities in Hong Kong to make “sure that London is the western trading centre for the Chinese currency”, turning “the City into an offshore trading centre for the renminbi” (The Financial Times, 16 January, 2012)? The renminbi is about to become fully convertible this year – isn’t it?

Well, perhaps not: “capital account liberalization looks off the table … At the moment, the transfers out of China are manageable, but then again the economy has only begun to falter. No officials, even ones less obsessed about control than Beijing’s, would open up a capital account in a quickly deteriorating economic environment. Therefore, events are working against Zhou Xiaochuan [Governor of the People’s Bank of China], and so is Chen Deming, the boss of the Ministry of Commerce. Chen has tenaciously defended the interests of exporters by blocking currency liberalization, and with the country’s trade surplus set to decline—to about $150 billion last year from $183.1 billion in 2010 and $196.1 billion in 2009—it is unlikely that Chen will now let central bank reformers get their way. … If Beijing opens the currency wall and the markets are not ready, flows of investment cash could—and probably will—lead to a catastrophe. At this time, it will take years to get China’s banks and markets in shape for unregulated flows of currency. So don’t expect capital account convertibility this year or even next.” This is the analysis of Gordon Chang (author of The Coming Collapse of China, and Forbes contributor, here: “China says Yuan will be fully convertible soon”).

Declining demand for Chinese exports

Certainly the Chinese economy gives plenty of reasons for this degree of pessimism. One of the most important indicators of China’s burgeoning woes is the troubled eurozone: Europe was China’s biggest export market, but Europe has practically ceased importing. The immediate consequence of this is that recession is perceptibly looming in China, indeed there are, for example, reports that China’s steel industry is seriously struggling with the potential closure of many mills (The Economist, Jan. 23-Feb. 3, 2012). Add to this the optimism expressed at the recent Davos summit by American business leaders that the coming on stream of shale gas in the United States is going to dramatically reduce manufacturing energy costs there, thus enabling American manufacturers to repatriate production.

So does this explain the Chinese flight into gold?

Inside a typical gold retailer in Suzhou, China

Inside a typical gold retailer in Suzhou, China

See a previous article on called “1 Billion to buy gold as Chinese gold rush grows” for some facts and figures.

The figures are certainly impressive – not to say astonishing. But is it certain that these figures represent only concerned citizens anxious to preserve their wealth? The active encouragement of the People’s Bank of China, referred to in the cited article, that “1 Billion Chinese citizens buy gold as a way of preserving and protecting their wealth against inflation, economic crisis and the falling values of major currencies” could bear another interpretation: namely that the Chinese authorities are contemplating at some future tipping point to announce a patriotic handing over of individual gold holdings to the state – i.e. confiscation.

Moreover, let us look again at the declared intention of that same People’s Bank of China to make the renminbi fully convertible this year. The massive purchases of gold may have yet another interpretation: as a means of supporting the value of the renminbi when it floats in spite of the problems that both Mr Chang and Mr Stepek discuss in their articles cited above. And that raises another enigma.

China remains, politically, a Communist state, and remains fundamentally unfriendly to the Western powers – witness its recent active unwillingness to censure the Syrian butchers. That it has liberalised its economy since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, and that this has opened trade barriers and brought prosperity to millions of Chinese is not to be doubted; but this has all taken place in terms of a closed political system that holds the whip hand over the economy, “state capitalism” interpreted in the interests of the Chinese Communist Party, that is, a fascist-corporatist economic model.

This raises intriguing possibilities in terms of those thousands of purchasers of gold. For while there are corporations that clearly function under the rubric of the Chinese State there are many more enterprises that appear to be private corporations but are in fact shells for the State (the Chinese corporate structure emulates in many ways the systems of incorporation that for a long time successfully hid the fact that ultimately it was the shameless and cruel King Leopold II of Belgium who owned the Congo Free State). And just as this operates at the corporate level, so may it operate at the individual level: there is simply no way of knowing how many of those individual or smaller-scale enterprises who are buying up gold may in fact be agents of the state.

A Chinese Gold Standard?

Remember that according to the World Gold Council and GFMS reports, China is the World’s largest producer of gold and is second only to India for gold consumption (but catching up fast). No coincidence here either!

So to answer the questions raised at the beginning of this article: What is happening? We don’t actually know. And why is it happening? One shudders to think….
…. But then imagine if one day the Chinese government “requires” private investors to place their gold in the People’s Bank for the good of the Nation – the national gold stock would swell considerably – maybe enough to back the Yuan with a Gold Standard and thus achieve its ambition to be the World’s Reserve currency?

A young investor contemplates the potential of gold

A young investor contemplates the potential of gold

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    […] from wanting to get their hands on gold or control it, as witness the buying of gold in China, and the curtailing of paying for gold in cash in […]

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"For a mountaineer, the important things are the effort, the posture and the muscles. The rope that holds him serves no purpose when everything works but it gives him a sense of security. In the same way, all gold does is ensure confidence; it's a safe haven."