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Double-circulation is all the rage nowadays in China – or at least among its leaders. No, it’s not anything related to treating the CCP Virus and the blood system. It’s the idea that the People’s Republic needs to shift its economic model away from heavy reliance on growing by exporting to dependence on growing by supplying its own commercial entities and especially consumers.

Double-circulation also could well be seized on by supporters of the pre-Trump U.S. trade policy status quo for easing off on the high tariffs on literally hundreds of billions of dollars worth of Chinese goods aimed at American markets. After all, if China needs to export less, logically anyway, it will also need to resort less to predatory tactics like intellectual property theft, massive subsidies, and technology extortion to juice these exports – whether they come from Chinese-owned entities or from foreign owned companies selling from China in foreign markets like America’s.

A China more focused on domestic demand might even give a break to foreigners trying to reach Chinese consumers, by giving Chinese households and commercial entities greater choices. But even though this point doesn’t follow as closely, the domestic consumption focus of double circulation could produce more opportunities for foreign producers and service providers anyway simply by putting more money in Chinese consumers’ pockets. If so, double circulation could make the Trump administration’s apparent aim to decouple the United States from China whoppingly self-defeating for American businesses and their workers. 

I haven’t bought the double circulation thesis – and its policy implications in particular – ever since I wrote my book on globalization and the U.S. economy, The Race to the Bottom, back in 2000. So I’m especially pleased to report that my case has just been reenforced by a genuinely excellent authority on the Chinese economy, and by the Chinese regime itself. Even better – these reenforcements also strongly support the apparent Trump administration objective of decoupling America’s economy from China’s.  

Just to be clear: At no time during the last twenty years have I doubted that, on the trajectory it was on, China would become much wealthier, and that the purchasing power of Chinese consumers would rise considerably. Moreover, there was no reason to believe that even the protectionists ruling in Beijing would want to shut imports out of the Chinese economy completely.

But I also had no doubt that, however much more the Chinese would consume in absolute terms, the economy’s export dependence would continue for the foreseeable future simply because Chinese incomes were starting from such meager levels. Therefore, the policy challenges created by the growing integration of the Chinese economy into the U.S. and larger global economies would continue as well – and actually intensify.

The reason? The combination of China’s rock-bottom purchasing power in absolute terms, its ambitious and understandable economic development goals, and its determination to advance them by hook or by crook, would keep confronting America and the world with a country that would long need to produce far more than it could consume in order to keep making economic progress.

For it would take decades at best before China’s population could absorb by itself the output needed to fuel Chinese economic development – or even close. The domestic market simply would remain too small. And since that excess output needed to be bought by someone, it needed to be sold overseas. In fact, Beijing would need to constrain the growth of domestic consumption, since in order to keep churning out the goods needed to power more production, most of the economy’s capital needed to be channeled to producers, not consumers.

And just this past week appeared two items strongly indicating that this analysis has always been and remains on target, and highly relevant to the decoupling debate 

The Chinese economy authority I’m talking about is Michael Pettis – who actually teaches at a Chinese university! In an August 25 Financial Times essay, Pettis made the following key points:

>”Double circulation” is nothing more than a fancy new term for “rebalancing” – and has been an officially proclaimed goal in China “since at least 2007.”

>Almost no progress has been made toward rebalancing: “The consumption share of Chinese GDP remains extraordinarily low, just two percentage points higher in 2019 than it was in 2007. Meanwhile, and not coincidentally, during this period China’s debt-to-GDP ratio doubled.”

>And that progress is largely to blame for China racking up so much debt. After all (and here, I’m reading between Pettis’ lines), since the global financial crisis broke out starting 2007-08, slower U.S. and global growth have tightly limited China’s export opportunities. But since even the country’s iron-fisted dictators couldn’t afford politically to antagonize the population by slowing living standards advances, Beijing needed to borrow on an immense scale, and spend most of this credit on an infrastructure binge that included too many unproductive white elephant projects.

>China’s debts are so big that they’re becoming unsustainable. The best way out – while keeping the population’s income progress reasonably intact – is to reignite exports. But – and here’s where Pettis (who details the problem in a new book) echoes my own analysis in an absolutely striking way – such efforts face a fatal contradiction:

China’s export competitiveness…depends on ensuring that workers are allocated, whether by wages or the social safety net, a very low share of what they produce. China’s export strength, in other words, depends, at least in part, on the low share workers retain of what they produce.”

At the same time, “China can only rely on domestic consumption to drive a much greater share of growth if workers begin to receive a much higher share of what they produce, so the very process of rebalancing must undermine China’s export competitiveness.”

So putting the issue in the terms I’ve been using, and zeroing in on the policy implications – including hopes for the China market – however much Chinese incomes and purchasing power grow in absolute terms, continued Chinese economic progress still depends on its exports growing considerably faster. As a result, whatever U.S. and other foreign producers as a whole gain in selling goods made in their home countries to Chinese customers, they’re bound to lose more in their domestic markets to Chinese-made products. Of course, any number of individual firms will come out ahead. But their domestic economies consistently will come out behind.

Consequently (and these are my ideas, not Pettis’), whatever short-term disruptions, inefficiencies and therefore weakening of growth and employment take place in the course of pursuing decoupling, this strategy is essential for boosting output and employment in the United States over the longer-term, and for making sure that its own economic progress is sustainable – not to mention the decisive strategic benefits of reducing dependence on China in key industries.

The Chinese government confirmation of these China concerns and ideas of mine appeared in a Wednesday Reuters article on the country’s imports of semiconductors from around the world. The fact that they’re so huge (on a pace to top $300 billion this year for the third straight year, despite the Chinese economy’s partly CCP Virus-induced slowdown) is awfully interesting. So is their rapid growth – up from the $200 billion neighborhood in 2013.

But here’s what’s much more interesting, at least for the U.S. debate on China policy: the statement by the vice-chairman of the China Semiconductor Industry Association that “of the chips that China imported, about half would be exported eventually as they are incorporated into other products.”

It’s interesting and crucially important because it undercuts the claim that U.S.-China decoupling could backfire most of all on the companies relied on by America for so much of its technological competitiveness – the semiconductor companies.

The claim is based on the widespread view that these companies earn much, and in some cases most, of their global revenues in China. (See here for specific numbers.) And that’s indeed what they state in their financial reports.

But as the Chinese semiconductor vice-chairman just made clear, these figures are true only in the narrowest, technical sense. Specifically, when firms like Qualcomm or Intel sell a chip to an electronics company that manufactures or assembles in China, the transaction is recorded as a sale in China whose revenue comes from China.

But since half of the chips used in China go into products for export, it’s clear that in many cases, the end user – the ultimate source of the revenue – isn’t in China at all. It’s elsewhere, including prominently the United States.

Put differently, China isn’t simply, or even mainly, a customer itself for foreign-made, including U.S.-made, semiconductors. It’s largely an assembly location and export platform. It’s true that its electronics industry production base overall is now the world’s largest, that much of its output now consists of information technology products as well as consumer electronics, and that reproducing it elsewhere will take major, protracted effort. But the base itself – including China’s own semiconductor industry – could not have been built without the investments of foreign multinational companies. (See, e.g., here and here.) And if the multinationals can create such an immense complex in China, they can create one elsewhere, too, especially presented with the right policy carrots and sticks.

And by the way, the vice-chairman of the China Semiconductor Industry Association isn’t anything like an official from a typical industry association in a place like the United States. He’s a Chinese government official. So there you have it from the dragon’s mouth.

Neither the Pettis article nor the China semiconductor official’s remarks means that the United States should rush headlong into decoupling. But they do indicate that, particularly over the long-term, this dis-integration exercise will be an economic – as well as a national security – winner for Americans.