When I want to feel optimistic about China, I look at data from Economic Freedom of the World to confirm that there was a lot of economic liberalization (triggered in part by some civil disobedience) between 1980 and the early 2000s.
But I also look at the same data if I want to feel pessimistic about China. That’s because there hasn’t been any additional liberalization in the past 15 years. China is basically treading water, and that means it is actually losing ground as other nations reform.
And that includes adopting better trade policy.
Which raises an interesting question: Is Trump’s saber rattling on China trade helping or hurting?
Here’s some of what I wrote for Inside Sources on this issue.
President Donald Trump has launched a new attack in his trade war with China… Is it possible…that his bluster will produce a good long-run deal to offset short-run costs? Let’s hope so, but it’s unclear…we all have a stake in the outcome of these trade negotiations. So here are five things to understand as discussions continue.
Starting with two reasons why there’s a trade deficit and why it doesn’t matter.
Americans are much richer than their counterparts in China. …per-capita economic output in the United States is six times larger than it is in China ($60,000 compared to $10,000). This means Americans can afford to buy a lot more, including more goods and services from around the world. As such, a bilateral trade deficit with China is neither surprising nor worrisome.
The United States enjoys a far higher level of economic freedom than China. …the United States is ranked No. 6 while China is a lowly No. 107. This helps to explain why Chinese entrepreneurs who earn dollars by selling to American consumers often decide to invest those dollars in the American economy (the United States is the world’s top destination for global investment). This means the trade deficit is matched by a capital surplus.
I then explain China is guilty of protectionism and it would be good for both nations if these barriers were eliminated.
China has more protectionist barriers than America. …average Chinese tariffs are nearly three times higher than America tariffs. And China is also guiltier of using subsidies to help domestic companies. …people of both nations are the main victims of these bad policies, but it would be good for all of us if those trade barriers were reduced.
But what’s the best approach to encourage better policy from China?
I don’t think Trump’s unilateral protectionism will be successful.
Bullying and tit-for-tax retaliation is not an effective strategy. …tariffs hurt China, but they also hurt the United States by raising the price of consumer and intermediate goods. Taxes on Chinese goods also reduce incentives for America companies to become more efficient and better producers. Perhaps most important, there is little reason to think these taxes will have the desired effect of altering Chinese behavior.
The WTO is an underused tool for trade liberalization. It has a dispute resolution process that has been successfully used to cajole and pressure nations into reducing trade barrier. The president has publicly criticized the WTO, but he probably doesn’t realize that the United States wins about nine out of every 10 cases when it challenges other nations’ trade barriers. …many other nations would have supported the United States if we had used the WTO as a vehicle to achieve more liberalization.
The bottom line, for what it’s worth, is that I’m not terribly hopeful.
It’s not too late for the president to select that strategy, of course, but that won’t be likely as long as he mistakenly sees trade as a zero-sum proposition.
Let’s close by looking at relevant excerpts from three other articles.
First, a columnist for National Review explains how cronyism infects the Chinese economy.
…just because China has many private companies, allows Communist-Party member Jack Ma to become a billionaire as head of Alibaba Group, and translates capitalist classics into Mandarin doesn’t mean it’s capitalist. The fact that few describe the Chinese economic system without putting a modifier in front of the term “capitalism” — “authoritarian,” “state,” “predatory,” “Communist,” etc. — should tell us something. …China has more than 150,000 state-owned enterprises, accounting for 40 percent of industrial assets. However, Chinese state capitalism is not just, or even principally, about the number and size of such enterprises; it’s about the central role the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) plays in virtually all aspects of economic life. …Chinese state capitalism is a system in which the purpose of firms — private and public — is to fulfill the goals of the Communist Party. …capitalism is…a system in which…property owners have considerable…freedom to pursue their goals without influence from the state. By this standard, China’s is far from a capitalist economy.
…the trade dispute is about far more than tariffs and deficits. It is a contest of two very different national ideologies. Though the Trump administration has deviated from this somewhat, the United States believes that openness—political, economic, and social—creates prosperity, resolves disagreements within society, and promotes the diversity that spawns innovation and progress. China—or, more accurately, its leadership—sees government control as critical to developing the economy, achieving social peace, and forwarding the best interests of the nation overall. Americans tend to think open, free markets that are operating in a fair regulatory environment produce the best economic results. Beijing, on the other hand, doesn’t trust market forces and instead wants the state to play a more direct role in achieving the economic outcomes it determines are necessary for the country. …As a result, what Trump is demanding is extremely difficult to achieve: a “level playing field” for American firms. In fact, nothing of the sort actually exists in China, even for Chinese companies. The state has a nasty tendency to favor its own, with government-controlled businesses enjoying a smorgasbord of official assistance, including tax credits, low-interest loans from state banks, and other subsidies that give them an undue edge in local competition. That leaves private Chinese companies and entrepreneurs often facing the same kinds of hurdles to doing business that foreign ones face.
Third, Professor Deirdre McCloskey has a more optimistic assessment, arguingthat it is foolish for the U.S. government to fixate on China’s distortionary policies.
The White House is pursuing two stupid policies, trying to reduce the United States’ “balance of payments” with China and trying to protect “intellectual property” from China’s thievery. These policies are leading to a crash in the Chinese economy, which has been grossly ill-managed under President Xi Jinping. …when did you last feel the U.S. balance of trade? You feel only the idiotic policies advocated in reaction to it by Peter Navarro, a White House economist who never learned economics. (His Ph.D. is from Harvard. I’m thinking of turning mine back in.) It would be better if the government did not calculate and announce the balance of payments at all. It’s meaningless and an occasion for sin. What about China stealing intellectual property? Intellectual propertysounds nice. …Patents and copyrights make things that are free in nature artificially scarce in order to cream off profit for the influentials. They are comparable to hack medallions, recently threatened by monopoly breakers Uber and Lyft. …Economists would be satisfied with a rough-and-ready rule of, say, a 10-year monopoly. But asserting an expansive right to intellectual property, which Congress then regularly extends in order to preserve the privileges of drug companies and the Walt Disney Corporation, is no solution.
I’ll add one final point.
We should support Chinese economic reform because it is good for the United States and good for China.
In other words, notwithstanding all the growth China has enjoyed, it is still well behind the United States.
That’s the price the country is paying for insufficient reform.
Beijing should copy Hong Kong and Singapore if it wants to converge with America.