Uber-pundit Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column this week about China demonstrated both that “better late than never” may not always be true, and that there’s precious little accountability in the Mainstream Media. Too bad he performed both vital tasks completely unwittingly?
As he traveled through China recently, Friedman told us, his conviction grew that, as President Trump has been charging, “China is not playing fair on trade and has grown in some areas at the expense of U.S. and European workers….” Moreover, he adds, this China challenge “needs to be addressed — now.”
Continued Friedman: “The core problem, U.S. and European business leaders based in China explained, is that when the U.S. allowed China to join the World Trade Organization in 2001 and gain much less restricted access to our markets, we gave China the right to keep protecting parts of its market — because it was a ‘developing economy.’ The assumption was that as China reformed and become more of our equal, its trade barriers and government aid to Chinese companies would melt away.
“They did not.”
And Friedman did a pretty good job of summarizing what RealityChek regulars and so many others have known for years – that China’s mercantilism became considerably worse.
The author ended his piece with a (sort of) ringing call for action: “China needs to know that some people who disagree with everything else Trump stands for — and who value a strong U.S.-China relationship — might just support Trump’s idea for a border-adjustment tax on imports to level the playing field.”
But Friedman also included this kicker: According to someone he called “the smartest person I know inside China on trade (who will have to go nameless),” such actions “if anything… may be too late.”
As the author’s reaction – “Ouch!” – suggests, there’s a distinct possibility that his source is right about the consequences of waiting sixteen years to grapple seriously with China’s predatory practices.
But here’s what Friedman didn’t tell you: One of the folks who pushed vigorously for the boneheaded American WTO decision was none other than Thomas Friedman! As he wrote in 2000, opponents of China’s admission, like U.S. labor unions, were “head-in-the-sand” protectionists. Nor did Friedman seem to think much of fears that “China’s entry into the WTO will make it a more formidable geopolitical rival to the United States.”
Instead, he confidently wrote that “to say that [admission] will hurt the cause of democratization in China or that it won’t help create more islands from which Chinese democrats can operate and more tools by which they can communicate, is to speak utter nonsense.”
Interestingly, by 2011, Friedman seemed to be having important second thoughts about China’s reformist intentions. But he still doggedly opposed meaningful actions to neutralize Beijing’s currency manipulation, for example, with tariffs.
Since no one likes to admit mistakes – especially whoppers – I can certainly understand Friedman’s failure to report his enthusiasm for a China trade strategy he now recognizes as a titanic failure. Much less clear is why so much of the rest of the Mainstream Media – and especially news talk shows who view him as a globalization oracle – keep giving him a pass.