December 4, 2021

After a Strong Recovery, China’s Economy Unexpectedly Stumbles Again

HONG KONG — Brightly hued men’s underwear in a rainbow of colors is no longer selling well in Europe for the Zhongtian Garments Company in Xiamen, China. Exports are down 30 percent in the last year.

Children’s guitars with bodies resembling cats and cartoon characters are no longer selling well for Yuesen Musical Instrument Factory in Huainan, China. And at the Yuzhongniao Outdoor Products Company in Jinjiang, domestic sales and exports alike are declining this year. The Canton Fair, China’s biggest export event, ended on Sunday with depressingly few new orders. “We are not even getting many people browsing this time,” said Alice Hong, Yuzhongniao’s sales manager.

After a powerful recovery through the autumn and winter from a V-shaped downturn last summer, China’s economy is unexpectedly faltering once again. Exports are weak. The country’s domestic economy is still growing mostly because of huge increases in lending by state-controlled banks and a surge in off-balance sheet lending. Consumer spending is rising, but not fast enough to offset weakness in other sectors.

That combination has prompted growing concerns among economists and business executives about the sustainability of even 7.5 percent growth in China in the coming years, the government’s current goal after three decades of double-digit growth with only a few interruptions.

The latest sign of trouble came on Wednesday, when China’s General Administration of Customs announced export and import figures for April. On the surface, they looked fairly respectable: exports were up 14.7 percent from a year earlier, and imports were up 16.8 percent.

But April 2012 was an exceptionally bad month for Chinese exports and imports — indeed, dismal trade statistics for that month were the first sign that economic weakness during the preceding winter was turning into a precipitous decline.

This April’s trade figures appeared even weaker when economists looked closer and found that the export growth had been largely propelled by growth in exports to Hong Kong, up 57 percent, and to special customs zones in China for export later, up even faster.

Since Hong Kong’s own data has not been showing large increases in imports from China so far this year, the Chinese government has already opened an investigation into whether exporters are overinvoicing for shipments; overstating exports can allow companies to evade currency controls and move money into China to profit from the gradual appreciation of the renminbi against the dollar.

Louis Kuijs, an economist in the Hong Kong office of the Royal Bank of Scotland, estimated that with the exclusion of overinvoicing, export growth came to only 5.7 percent.

Over the last few years, economists have tended to pay less attention to China’s exports because they were declining as a share of China’s total economic output, because of weak overseas demand. But newer research suggests that China’s may still be quite dependent on exports.

The reason is that multinationals have been rapidly localizing their purchases of everything from computer chips to auto parts in China instead of importing them from other Asian neighbors. So while total exports may not have been rising quickly in recent years in China, the Chinese content in each dollar of exports has been increasing.

Mr. Kuijs estimated that 20.7 percent of China’s economic output came from exports last year, a figure that had bottomed out in 2009 at 19.7 percent.

In a bad sign for exports in the months ahead, the Canton Fair announced early this week that export orders placed at this year’s spring session had fallen 1.4 percent from a year ago. It was the latest sign that steeply rising blue-collar wages in China and a gradually appreciating currency are starting to erode the country’s international competitiveness; foreign investment in China has also begun to level off, while surging in lower-wage countries in the region, like Cambodia and Vietnam.

Hilda Wang contributed reporting.

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Music Site Lets Users Play D.J. to Virtual, and Discerning, Crowds

The hottest new club isn’t in Los Angeles or New York. It’s on a Web site called, where big-headed cartoon characters populate the D.J. booth.

On the site, users represented by cartoon avatars enter one of many virtual listening rooms, where up to five people at a time take turns playing songs for the crowd. Those in the room can type to chat with one another or click to give songs an “awesome” or “lame” vote.

D.J.’s who please the crowd with their song selections earn points, which can unlock virtual goods like a better-looking avatar. Those who make poor choices run the risk of getting booted from their coveted perch behind the turntables.

Fans of the site, which has been around about a month, say it can be addictive.

“If I’m awake, I’m on it,” said Elissa Jane Mastel, 42, an online marketing executive who lives in Woodstock, N.Y. “It’s the most fun I’ve had on a social Web site in a long time.” offers a twist on music services like and Pandora, which are often referred to as Internet radio, but, in contrast to traditional radio, do not give people the experience of listening to the same song at the same time as others. It joins sites like,, and Listening Room that are trying to recreate the feeling of being with friends at a concert when listening to music at home.’s fans say the service’s appeal stems from this focus on group listening, and on selecting songs to play based on the mood of the room.

“It’s not just me playing what I want to hear,” Ms. Mastel said. “It’s me playing music based on what other people are listening to.” To limit traffic, the site has set up a virtual velvet rope: Only those with a Facebook friend who has already signed up can get in.

It is still young enough and small enough that Web analytics firms like comScore are not able to track it yet. But interest in the site is surging amid a wave of favorable mentions in music and tech circles. AppData, which tracks activity on sites like that use Facebook’s log-in system, says that more than 336,000 people have signed up over the last few weeks.

As is often the case with of-the-moment hot spots, there have been celebrity sightings, including the science-fiction author Neil Gaiman, the producer Diplo, the rappers Sir-Mix-a-Lot and Talib Kweli, and even Mark Zuckerberg. (Although when everybody in the room looks like an extraterrestrial teddy bear, identities can be hard to verify.) was created by two entrepreneurs, Billy Chasen and Seth Goldstein, who had been working on a company called Stickybits that was focused on cellphone-scannable bar-code stickers. Although it attracted partners like Lipton Tea that hoped to use the stickers to offer coupons and rewards, it never took off with the public. Now the men are talking to venture capital firms and are close to wrapping up a deal for $6 million to $7 million in financing for, according to a person briefed on the negotiations.

Both Mr. Chasen and Mr. Goldstein declined to be interviewed. The site recently cut off access for international users, indicating that it has already faced some objections from the music industry. The music for the site is supplied by a company called MediaNet that has the rights to offer its service only in the United States, Canada and Britain.

Drew Larner, chief executive of the streaming music service Rdio, said securing music rights was likely to be one of the biggest hurdles for a site like, since record labels and publishers have strict rules about how their music can be used. Historically the industry has not been known for embracing online innovation; Spotify, a much-talked-about streaming music start-up, has struggled to bring its service to the United States.

“It’s the primary gating factor,” Mr. Larner said. “But labels are more open to new models of distribution with their content, because they want to capture this market.”

Those who have watched over the last few weeks say that for now, the service is enjoying something of a golden moment, akin to the early days of LimeWire and Napster before copyright lawyers cracked down. Already there are certain aspects of the service that seem likely to raise hackles among music executives.

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