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What if Americans no longer had to pay so much attention to two of the biggest economic reasons for worry about China? Specifically, if Americans didn’t need to be nearly so concerned that much smarter, tougher measures against China’s predatory economic policies would cost their exporters access to a gigantic current and potentially bigger market? And they believed that decoupling from the hostile, dangerous People’s Republic could be much less economically damaging than widely supposed? 

Those are fascinating and important questions asked and suggested by Wall Street Journal columnist Joseph C. Sternberg in a piece over the weekend, and he presented some compelling evidence that, however “preposterous” it sounds now, these possibilities are surprisingly close to becoming realities. Moreover, they’re getting closer all the time, thanks to dictator Xi Jinping’s reversal of the free market-ish reforms and integration into the global economy begun by Beijing in the 1980s.

His evidence? The big payoff that supposedly motivated the U.S. and foreign governments and their multinational companies to push so hard to bring China into the world trading system – that aforementioned access to the Chinese market – is stalling out way short of expectations. In fact, as Sternberg documents, “China makes a disproportionately low contribution to Western firms’ bottom lines relative to its population and potential.”

To support these claims, the author cites data showing that the China market’s share of the revenues of several big Western economies’ multinational businesses (including America’s) remains well below ten percent. And this even though:

(a) more than twenty years have passed since China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), which entitled the People’s Republic to nearly all the benefits of integration with the global economy (while de facto enabling it to avoid most of the obligations); and

(b) China’s share of global economic output (which should approximate its share of the worldwide market for goods and services) had reached more than 15 percent in 2020 – and this percentage had jumped by some 50 percent in 2013.

But even these figures may be exaggerated, at least in the U.S. case. The financial research firm Calcbench has examined the share of revenues 67 of companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index earned in China in 2020. It came to a total of 10.48 percent – a little higher than Sternberg’s figure.

Most of the firms most reliant on China revenues, however, like Qualcomm (59.5 percent of its global total), Texas Instruments (55.5 percent), Lam Research (35.1 percent), and Applied Materials (31.7 percent) are either semiconductor manufacturers, producers of semiconductor manufacturing equipment, or makers of other advanced electronics parts and components. And large percentages of their China revenues are sold to the China-based factories that turn out consumer electronics products (like personal computers and cell phones), and that export huge shares of their own output. That is, those revenues aren’t really earned by sales to final customers located in China. They’re earned by sales to final customers located outside China (like the United States).

Just how large are some of these export percentages? According to this source and this source, 64.4 percent of all the cell phones made in China were sold overseas. According to this source and this source, 65.04 percent of the notebook computers made in the People’s Republic were exported that year. So that should more than satisfy the definition of “large”.   

One important claim that Sternberg gets wrong, however – that contention that “Countries wanted to open China to trade because of its population of more than 1.4 billion consumers. Their ascent into the global middle class, buying U.S. and European goods and services along the way, was the great prize to be won.”

In fact, as Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown explained in 2007, the companies “really had way more interest in one billion Chinese workers” when they were lobbying so hard to bring China into the WTO. I.e., they recognized at that point that China would long remain far too poor to become a major final market for their goods and services. But they were rightly confident that, with foreign training and management, China’s vast population could become highly productive (but still extremely cheap workers) long before that. A 2000 study by yours truly presented abundant evidence 

And China’s continuing heavy reliance on exports means that for all its spectacular progress, the People’s Republic is still far from the point where it can generate acceptable levels of growth and employment by relying on its own market for sales. In other words, for decades, the United States in particular -which has run the by far the world’s biggest trade deficit with China – has enjoyed much more leverage over China than vice versa. 

This doesn’t mean that Sternberg is under any illusions that further decoupling the U.S. and other foreign economies from China’s would be painless (though the still relatively self-sufficient U.S. economy would obviously feel much less – short-term – pain). But as he notes, China’s economy is running into big, growing problems – in particular a massive, already deflating real estate bubble that is undercutting the ability to China’s consumers to maintain current levels of spending on anything. In addition, Xi Jinping’s evident determination to squeeze foreign companies out of China as soon as feasible is leaving these foreign companies and economies little choice over the longer run.  So shouldn’t the United States and the rest of the world take these hints more closely to heart and greatly step up decoupling from China?