Thu, Jun 14, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Rich China should stop pretending it is poor

By Brendan Kelly  /  Bloomberg

Almost any foreign official, businessman or journalist visiting Beijing has heard the mantra that China cannot be expected to open up its markets or meet more stringent international standards because it is still a developing economy.

Maybe that argument was valid 20 years ago. Now it is increasingly tenuous. More importantly, it is damaging to China and the world.

Pleading poverty ignores the tremendous economic progress China has made in the past few decades. When China joined the WTO in 2001, it was the world’s sixth-largest economy and at an early stage of reorganizing state-owned enterprises to compete globally.

China is now the world’s second-largest economy and its largest trading nation. It is home to some of the largest globally competitive firms, last year accounting for 115 of the Fortune 500 largest companies in the world.

China has moved up the global value chain dramatically, with a world-class export sector bigger than that of any other G20 economy. It boasts a large high-tech market and technology firms that are fast becoming global leaders. The country has been granted the largest number of patents globally since 2015.

More than half of its population — about 700 million people — use smartphones. As of September last year, China had the second-largest number of unicorns after the US: about 98 companies.

True, while China’s per capita income last year reached US$8,830, up eight-fold from 2001, it is still well below the World Bank’s US$12,236 threshold for high-income countries. However, this measure is misleading. Already an upper-middle-income nation, China has a high-income country living inside of it.

More than 200 million Chinese live in high-income areas, including the cities of Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai, and the powerhouse coastal provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang.

Jiangsu alone has a population of 80 million people and per capita GDP of almost US$17,000 — greater than Argentina, Chile and Hungary. Shenzhen’s 12 million residents boast a per capita GDP of more than US$27,000 in nominal terms.

China has also become systemically important financially in a way few other countries are. It houses the world’s largest banking system, second-largest equity markets and third-largest bond market, and is promoting a larger international role for the yuan.

In the past few years, China has become the world’s largest net exporter of capital; its policy banks have extended more lending to developing economies than all of the multilateral development banks combined.

Ignoring or minimizing all these facts does China more harm than good. Chinese leaders act as though companies still need to be protected from global competition: The country remains the most closed G20 member, as measured by investment restrictions and ease of doing business.

Foreign investment is blocked in many key sectors, such as cloud-computing services, even as China’s three biggest tech firms have all made major cloud services investments in the US in the past few years.

This situation — where Chinese firms take advantage of open export and investment opportunities around the world, but enjoy a significantly protected market at home — is unsustainable. It is putting support for the broader global trading system at risk and spurring not just the US, but several European nations to consider new barriers to Chinese investment. China has as much to lose as anyone from escalating trade tensions.

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