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Toiling from Tang Dynasty to Today – Buying a House in Beijing

January 13th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

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How long would it take an ordinary Chinese peasant to save up and buy a nice apartment in Beijing? You’ll need to brush up on your dynastic history.

1,400 years ago, as the Tang Dynasty dawned in China, a peasant began farming a small plot of decent land 6mu (one acre) in size. Every year, in addition to providing for his family’s needs, he was able to earn a small profit by selling his surplus. His son followed him on the land, and maintained his father’s steady output and steady profit. Same with is children, and children’s children, through the Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing Dynasties into the Republican period and then the modern era marked by the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, down to present day.

Some 280 generations later, there should now be just about enough in the family bank account for the family to pay cash for a new two-bedroom apartment in Beijing. This is assuming no withdrawals from the bank account during that time, and even more unlikely, no bad years due to floods, famine, locusts, rebellion.

I heard this calculation second hand, and so can’t check the figures. But, it certainly has a ring of truth about it. Property prices in Beijing particularly, but other large cities as well, have reached levels utterly disconnected from average earning levels, especially in rural China.  New apartments can now cost over USD$1 million. Prices continue to rise by over 5% a month, despite aggressive actions by government to curb the increases in residential property prices. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Housing prices in the U.S. peaked at 6.4 times average annual earnings this decade. In Beijing, the figure is 22 times.”

The collapse of this “housing price bubble” has been widely predicted for years now  — not since the Tang Dynasty, but it sometimes seems that way. The housing price crash was meant to be imminent two years ago, when prices were about 30% of current levels.

Still, they keep rising, most recently and most dramatically in second and third tier cities in China, places like Lanzhou, a provincial capital in arid Western China, where the cost of a 100 square meter apartment has doubled in price in the last year, to about $300,000.  Some apartment owners in Lanzhou earned as much profit  during 2010 from the sale of their property as a typical peasant in surrounding Gansu Province might make in a century.

My prediction is that housing prices may soon peak relative to incomes, but will keep moving upward. There are a few fundamental factors at work that raise the altitude of housing prices: rising affluence, China’s continuing urbanization and a dearth of alternative investment opportunities. Real estate, despite what can seem like dizzying price levels, is often seen to be a safer long-term bet than buying domestically-quoted shares.

Introducing property taxes, and allowing ordinary Chinese to buy assets outside China, would both alter the balance somewhat.  But, many a hard-working peasant is still going to need a thousand years of savings to join the propertied classes in Beijing.


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