Economic Growth

Enhancing resilience to safeguard China's economic transformation in a challenging world

China has ambitious economic transformation goals, and disaster resilience will be key.

China has ambitious economic transformation goals, and disaster resilience will be key. Image: Leon He/Unsplash

Lubomir Varbanov
Managing Director and Head of Public Sector Solutions, Swiss Re
Xin Dai
Chief Economist China, Swiss Re Institute
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This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions
  • Global economies, including China, are facing unprecedented challenges including climate risks, technological changes and diverging deglobalization.
  • In China, the government is promoting economic transformation towards a sustainable growth model in pursuit of modernization by the mid-2030s.
  • Here's why enhancing disaster resilience to natural catastrophes and fostering financial inclusion will be critical to helping China mitigate growing risks and uncertainties.

We are living in an increasingly diverse world where global economies are facing unprecedented challenges in terms of fast-growing climate risks, rapid technology acceleration, diverging deglobalization and rapid demographic evolution.

In fact, it could be argued that the global economy is facing a more challenging environment than pre-COVID due, in particular, to the delayed impact of previous monetary tightening, very high debt levels and intensified geopolitical risks.

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This growing complexity of multiple challenges has led to a divergence of the world economy and governments being increasingly compelled to implement counter-cyclical policies to address external shocks. After taking these factors into consideration, and according to our sigma research, global economic resilience today is 15% weaker than in 2007, a year prior to the Global Financial Crisis.

In China, the government is promoting economic transformation towards a sustainable growth model in pursuit of Chinese modernization by the middle of this century. It is putting greater emphasis on the 'new-quality productive forces' as noted during the Two Sessions meetings in March this year, with the focus on promoting the development of technology and innovation to enhance the growth potential of the Chinese economy.

Such development can further complicate the risk landscape, resulting in greater damages and higher economic losses from major risk events and significant impact to both businesses and individuals.

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While living and health standards in China have made vast strides forward in recent decades, climate and demographic change, as well as vulnerability to economic shocks, still pose challenges.

Therefore, enhancing disaster resilience to natural catastrophes and fostering financial inclusion are critical to mitigate growing risks and uncertainties. Such future-proofing requires the coming together of public and private sectors.

Global natural catastrophe and climate risks are intensifying

Our research shows that global economic losses from natural catastrophes exceeded $290 billion in 2023, which is above the 10-year average level of $235 billion. The accumulation of assets in regions vulnerable to natural catastrophes has driven the growing loss trend over the past 30 years.

Insured v uninsured natural catastrophe losses, 1970-2023
Insured vs uninsured natural catastrophe losses, 1970-2023. Image: Swiss Re

In addition, climate risk, as one of the most profound challenges to many governments, will continue to have widespread and intensifying impacts on weather conditions and economies. Climate adaptation and risk mitigation are crucial for communities and economies to continue to live and work safely and prosper but require significant investment and joint action by all stakeholders.

Such actions include providing natural catastrophe protection for a country such as China, given the growing accumulative values of property and increased frequency of weather events due to the impact of global climate changes.

According to SRI research, China ranks fifth in terms of the likelihood of hazard intensification and is mostly vulnerable to tropical cyclones and floods. Our resilience analysis suggests that the natural catastrophe resilience index for China was less than 10% in 2023, with large regional variations across regions, despite gradual improvement over time, indicating that more than 90% of underlying value exposed to natural catastrophe risk is unprotected by insurance and other assets.

Swiss Re actively partners with its Chinese clients across the private and public sectors to better understand the risk characteristics in China, enabling more customized solutions to be developed and providing capacity to support resilience. We also continue to work with industry associations to deepen our knowledge on the impacts of natural catastrophe risk in China, while exploring opportunities in the form of inclusive insurance to support the more vulnerable in society.

For example, the Pearl River Delta, located in the province of Guangdong, is one of the fastest growing urban regions globally and is frequently struck by tropical cyclones and excessive rainfall. As well as having a large population, Guangdong is home to several global companies that have production facilities or subsidiaries in the province.

The local government partnered with Swiss Re and local insurers to design a customized insurance solution aimed at improving the resilience of the region. This solution used a parametric insurance cover with a double trigger (i.e. typhoon track and wind speed for cyclone risk and precipitation amount for heavy rainfall risk), covering seven prefectures of Guangdong, and supports the Guangdong Province in building its fiscal resilience against natural catastrophe contingent liability.

Protecting mortality risk to support household resilience

Another peril that can further threaten the resilience of a nation is mortality. Mortality risk refers to households' lack of adequate financial protection against the premature death of a breadwinner. The ability to withstand economic pressures at the household level reduces risk of poverty and pressure on welfare services.

Swiss Re Institute research finds that China's mortality protection gap is estimated to be $73.6 billion with the resilience index estimated to be 38% in 2023, meaning that households' assets available to support the financial needs of dependent family members, in the event of premature death of the primary breadwinner, fell short by about 62%.

Mortality resilience in China actually improved compared to 2022 mainly due to a quick rebound of life insurance cover with premium growing 12.8% year-on-year in 2023. But the picture is diverse as we find significant disparity in Chinese provinces' mortality resilience, ranging from less than 15% in some provinces to more than 50% in others.

Life insurance penetration vs per-capita real GDP by province in China.
Life insurance penetration vs per-capita real GDP by province in China. Image: Swiss Re

As the effective financial tool to address mortality risk, China's life insurance penetration rate was only 2.1% in 2023, compared to 6.1% in Japan, 4.6% in Korea, 3.7% in Malaysia. For example, there is no requirement to take out a life insurance policy in China when obtaining a mortgage to buy a home and this exposes loved ones to potential risks.

When one considers that for every 1% increase in life insurance penetration the mortality resilience in China will increase six percentage points, the important role of insurance and financial inclusion become evident.

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How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

Investing in resilience plays a vital role in safeguarding countries against the uncertainties of today's world. Swiss Re has a long-standing relationship with China's insurance industry, with its first reinsurance contracts going back as far as 1931.

While much has changed in the intervening years and the risk landscape in China is vastly more complex, it is still the case that to future proof society we must continue to all work together. Strength lies in partnership.

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Economic GrowthGlobal Risks
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