Do Americans hold “simple” ideas about China’s economy?

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Wang Qishan, China’s vice-premier, caused a bit of a stir this week when he accused Americans of having “simple” ideas about his nation during an interview on “The Charlie Rose Show.” According to a transcript, Wang said:

It is not easy to really know China because China is an ancient civilization and we are of the oriental culture. And for the Americans, the United States is the world’s number one superpower, and the American people are a very simple people. If they’re asked to choose to understand a foreign country, their first choice would be the European countries, and the South American countries may come second. It was not only until recent years that the American people have begun to pay more attention to China. But over the years American media coverage of China has been scarce, and if there were some coverage, most of them are lopsided.

Wang’s views about the “simple-mindedness” of Americans when it comes to the world are widely held by people just about everywhere – and they sting. I am American and I am confronted by this accusation wherever I go. My experience tells me that the average American is no more narrow-minded about the world than the average person anywhere else – let alone in China, where the Chinese aren’t allowed free access to information by their government.

But Wang’s comments got me thinking about American attitudes towards the China-U.S. economic relationship. In my opinion, many Americans don’t seem to fully grasp the complexity of the Chinese economy and U.S.-China economic ties, and that generates tensions between the two countries. There is a gap – and in some cases, a pretty wide one, in my opinion – between what many Americans seem to believe about China and what is truly the reality on the ground. Here are what I believe are some common misperceptions:

Common Belief One: China steals American factory jobs.

Reality: Yes, it is true that the U.S. has experienced a major decline in manufacturing employment over the past 30 years, and China is partially responsible, since much of the world’s labor-intensive manufacturing (clothes, electronics, shoes) has become based in China. Even some of America’s high-tech inventions, like the iPhone, are assembled in China. But where Americans get things wrong is the idea that these jobs are being “stolen,” as if something nefarious is going on. The only crime committed by the Chinese people in this regard is that they are much poorer than Americans, and thus willing to work long hours in factories for a fraction of the wage demanded by workers in the U.S. or other wealthy nations. The shift of low-end manufacturing to emerging economies like China is part of a grand process of economic globalization in which production is becoming based where it is most cost-effective, wherever that may be in the world. The loss of low-end manufacturing in the U.S. began before China’s market-oriented reforms even started – way back in the 1960s, when labor-intensive work began shifting to places like South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Many of the factories that make electronics, clothing and toys in China today are actually owned by companies from these other Asian economies, which moved their facilities into China when wages rose at home. Simply put, if this labor-intensive work didn’t move to low-wage China, it would move to other low-wage countries (Indonesia, India, etc. etc.). China may be part of that important process, but China can’t be blamed for it.

Common Belief Two: China’s manipulation of its currency hurts the U.S. economy.

Reality: It is true that the value of China’s yuan is controlled by the government and kept at a rate that is probably too cheap, which makes Chinese exports extra competitive in global markets. There is a widespread belief in the U.S. that China’s currency policy creates the country’s giant trade surplus with America and thus hurts U.S. industry and economic growth. However, a stronger yuan is no cure-all for the U.S. trade deficit. The yuan has appreciated by some 27% since 2005, when the yuan-dollar peg was first ended, but China’s trade surplus (in goods) with the U.S. has increased, from $202 billion in 2005 to $273 billion in 2010. In my opinion, the U.S. overstates the importance of China’s currency in the U.S.-China economic relationship. Getting rid of the trade deficit with China demands reforms on both sides of the Pacific – to increase savings in the U.S. and spending in China. A stronger yuan would contribute to that process, and I’ve consistently advocated that China allow the currency to be valued in a more market-oriented way for the good of its own economy. But the economic relationship between the two nations is extremely complex and Americans can’t blame the yuan as a primary source of its economic ills.

Common Belief Three: China does capitalism better than America.

Reality: I hear all of the time from Americans that China is “more capitalist” or “better at capitalism” than America. Much of this nonsense got started during the Great Recession, when China was able to pump up growth with a giant stimulus package more quickly and efficiently than Washington. Ever since, Americans seem to have gotten the perception that China is a “better” economy, or that Chinese officials and businessmen are “better” at running a modern economic system. But this is silly on many, many levels. First, comparing the U.S. and Chinese economies is almost impossible, since they are at such divergent levels of development. China, as an emerging nation of still very poor people, can always achieve higher growth rates than an advanced, rich economy like the U.S. Second, the aspects of Chinese economic policy that are often praised in the U.S. aren’t capitalist at all – China’s stimulus program was a function of state policy, not the capitalist system, for example. Third, where China is “capitalist,” it often displays the worst aspects of capitalism – labor abuses, environmental degradation, and quality and safety problems (i.e., the never-ending scandal over tainted milk,) Fourth, at this stage, Chinese firms can’t come close to their American counterparts in innovation, management expertise and technology. That’s why foreign firms have a huge presence in many key sectors in China, like cars. So yes, China grows more quickly, and perhaps the government can occasionally implement policy more smoothly, but to say that China is a “better capitalist” is misguided.

Common Belief Four: China will inevitably overtake the U.S. as the world’s premier economy.

Reality: Yes, China’s economy keeps getting bigger and bigger. China overtook Japan as the No.2 economy in the world last year. There is a widespread perception that it is inevitable that China will surpass the U.S. as well. Perhaps that will prove true. But in the world of economics, nothing is inevitable. China is dealing with a long list of problems of its own: persistent poverty, inflation, rising debt levels, income inequality, poor social services, bubble-quality property prices, poor technology and energy efficiency, excessive reliance on investment for growth, and so on. Overcoming all of these hurdles won’t be easy, and we can’t assume China will continue to grow 10% year after year after year. And even if China does top the U.S. in size, that doesn’t mean America won’t be a major force in the global economy, as a primary source of innovation and new technologies, and key consumer market.

By making these points, I’m not saying that Americans have no reason to be concerned about China’s rise, or that China doesn’t bring ire onto itself through certain policies. For example, American businessmen rightly have real concerns about fair access to important markets in China, especially in services. But at the same time, the simplistic sloganeering that goes on the in U.S. about China only intensifies those problems and makes them harder to resolve. It’s about time we all get real about what’s really going on in China.