The China Dream
by Joe Studwell
Atlantic Monthly Press; 360 pp. $27
The dream of Joe Studwell's title is the dream of the China market: of 1.3 billion consumers just waiting to be sold clothes, medicine, cars, toothpaste, or whatever else the dreamer has to offer. As an English writer of the 1840s put it: "If we could only persuade every person in China to lengthen his shirttail by a foot, we could keep the mills of Lancashire working round the clock." The dream has been dreamed by many westerners across many centuries. For a very few — the opium merchants of the 19th century, the fast-food franchisers of our own time — it has actually come true. Much, much more often, it has proved to be only a dream, the waking from which has sometimes been abrupt and unpleasant.
In recent years there have been three cycles of dreaming and waking for foreign businessmen eager to tap into the China market. The first cycle began in the early 1980s, after a 50-year period when dreaming about China was out of fashion altogether. With the ascendancy of Deng Xiaoping's faction following Mao's death, it became clear that the fantasy economics of the Mao period had definitely been abandoned. So far as industry was concerned, they had mostly been abandoned in favor of the kind of incentivized state socialism attempted in Eastern Europe twenty years before. This was not much noticed, however. What was noticed was Deng's maxim "to get rich is glorious," and the revitalization of Chinese agriculture that followed the retreat from collective farming, and the surge in disposable incomes among urban Chinese from a Mao-era base very close to zero. Western businessmen, dreaming the dream, poured in to set up "joint ventures" with Chinese partners. The massacres of June 1989 are a convenient punctuation mark for the end of this first dream cycle. Many businessmen had already woken even before that, though; the book Beijing Jeep, published earlier that same year, told the dismal story of a typical "joint venture" fiasco.
The atmosphere of widespread state terror that followed the massacres offered a splendid opportunity for the Chinese government to administer some unpleasant medicine to an overheated economy. When this had been done to the leadership's satisfaction, Deng started the second cycle of dreaming with his famous "southern tour" of early 1992, in which he urged his countrymen to go for maximum economic growth. Following the massacres it was clear that the Communist Party had no intention of going away; but it seemed, from Deng's 1992 speeches, that it might be willing to leave the economy alone. This all happened just as the rising fad for "globalization" was seizing the attention of western business people. Once again, the dream took flight.
The actual experience of western business in China during the 1990s was closely watched by Joe Studwell, a writer on business and economics — he is founder and editor-in-chief of the excellent China Economic Quarterly — who lived in China for the entire decade. He saw the 1990s flood of dreamers arrive, bright-eyed and eager to engage this new, busy China. He watched the bright eyes glaze over as the reality of China gradually revealed itself to them. Signed agreements and "memoranda of understanding" turned out to be worthless; court rulings were not enforced; state-owned enterprises were exempt from costly environmental regulations; expensive licenses, processed by lackadaisical bureaucrats, were required at every turn; counterfeiting and abuse of intellectual property rights were rampant; the early-1990s purchasing-power models for the disposable income of the Chinese turned out to be too optimistic; ad hoc technical standards were used to impede trade; local management personnel were scarce, and of poor quality. As difficulties multiplied, the dream faded.
Then, in December last year, China's accession to the World Trade Organization became official. As this author points out:
The government committed to the WTO from a position of weakness, not strength, because of quiet desperation, not unified political resolve. It reached for an outside force to do a job it was failing to do itself — the deregulation and de-bureaucratization of China's economy.
WTO accession arrived just as serious disillusion was setting in among foreign investors in China. There are signs that it has initiated a third cycle of dreaming. Certainly the Chinese government hopes this is so. Knowing that they cannot solve their country's economic problems without making political reforms they are unwilling to contemplate, China's communists hope that the standards implicit in WTO membership, and the compulsory procedures for resolving disputes between members, will, all by themselves, force China's domestic economy to shape up. Joe Studwell shows convincingly why this is unlikely to happen.
The China Dream will inevitably be compared with last fall's book on the same topic, Gordon Chang's The Coming Collapse of China (which I reviewed in these pages 8/12/01). Studwell's book is lighter on cultural insights than Chang's, but better organized and richer in hard economic facts. He notes, and abundantly documents, such large and intractable truths as the following:
- For all the talk of reform, of retreat from socialism, of the unleashing of the energies of the Chinese people, and so on, government payrolls increased all through the 1980s and 1990s.
- From being debt-free in 1979, China is now saddled with liabilities that will soon make her the world's most indebted nation.
- "Given the state's determination to micromanage economic activity, there [is] almost no strictly legal way for foreign investors to make money."
Studwell offers two possibilities for China's near future: a long period of stagnation and low growth like the one Japan has been enduring, or a major fiscal crisis, with runs on the banks followed by Latin-American levels of instability and social disorder. He notes that neither scenario offers a very exact analogy to China: a stagnant debt-crushed economy with a per capita GNP of $25K per annum is not the same thing as one with $1K per annum, and Argentina has never had either Chinese levels of social and political control or modern China's imperial responsibilities and hegemonic ambitions.
The author's advice to foreign investors is to use the country as a manufacturing base for exports (if you can squeeze in among all the overseas-Chinese doing exactly that), but to engage in the domestic market only with utmost caution. It sounds right to me, though given the violence of regime change in China, and the xenophobic outbursts that traditionally accompany such change, I would add one more thing: keep a suitcase packed and ready under your bed at all times.