Since the United States decided to expand trade and commerce with China as fast as possible, numerous books and studies (including mine – see here and here) have tried to make the case first that this approach was certain to work out disastrously for the domestic economy, and later, that this scenario was actually unfolding.
If only when the major decisions were being made, or when they still could have been reversed relatively painlessly, could something like this new Wall Street Journal article have been published. For Trefor Moss’ report on China’s struggling export industries makes unusually clear that if pre-Trump presidents and Congresses (representing both Democrats and Republicans) truly tried to use trade policy to strengthen America’s productive core and its workers, facilitating business with China would have been one of their lowest priorities.
The reason, as Moss indicates: China’s economic strategy has always been so dependent on boosting exports much more than imports – in the words, on generating and increasing trade surpluses – that ever greater bilateral economic ties were never capable of creating more opportunities for domestic companies and workers than they wiped out.
Indeed, decades after Washington bipartisanly began to champion “coupling” the two countries, and throughout which Americans were constantly promised that China’s was going to become an economy driven more by domestic rather than by U.S. and other overseas demand, and therefore a huge winner for America on balance, Moss’ piece shows that these promises look more specious than ever. For even today, entire geographic regions of the People’s Republic and entire Chinese industries literally have nothing to do with supplying the needs and desires of Chinese customers, and everything to do with servicing foreign – and especially U.S. – markets.
Four particularly revealing observations in Moss’ article:
“Many of the products made [in the huge export hub of Yiwu], such as Christmas decorations and other low-cost, labor-intensive commodities, simply aren’t needed domestically in significant quantities. Only a small percentage of China’s 1.4 billion people are openly Christian, according to the U.S. human-rights group Freedom House.”
>”’Yiwu’s challenge is that the domestic market doesn’t have the stomach to consume all these products,’ said Dan Wang, chief economist at Hang Seng Bank China. ‘They’re not really suitable for domestic use.'”
>”Even getting products that Chinese people do want into domestic circulation will take time since Yiwu’s merchants lack local distribution connections, according to Andrew Batson, director of China research for Gavekal, a Hong Kong-based research firm.”
>”While consumption as a share of gross domestic product has risen over time in the U.S., reaching 68% in 2018, China’s has steadily declined to just 39%.”
Not explained by Moss, however, (and I’m not being critical here) is the fundamental explanation for this Chinese export orientation – and throughout the countries’ leading production cities and regions, not just Yiwu: It’s not simply a preference of the Chinese regime’s. It’s an iron necessity for achieving the country’s ambitious economic development goals, and as a result, for safeguarding China’s rulers paramount priority – keeping the populace happy enough to keep this dictatorship in power.
For as I pointed out most recently in this post, however much wealth it’s gained in recent decades, China’s population collectively still remains too poor by itself to fuel the growth needed to continue raising living standards robustly. Indeed, Chinese incomes have long remained so low in absolute terms that even after its lengthy run of spectacular progress, China still needs foreign incomes to fill the demand gap left by its inability to consume adequately.
In recent years, much of official Washington, and even the Swamp full of hangers on and consultants and lobbyists that surrounds it, have become aware that national security worries call for rethinking longstanding U.S. trade policies with China. Moss’ article is a valuable reminder that the purely economic case for a trade policy reversal remain compelling, too.