Monday, July 28, 2008

A Long Wait at the Gate to Greatness

Or why the Middle Kingdom won't be projecting a global hegemony anytime soon.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is the latest, predicting earlier this month that the Chinese economy would be twice the size of ours by the middle of the century.

There are two problems with predictions like these. First, in the universe where these reports are generated, China's graphs always go up, never down. Second, while the documents may include some nuance, it vanishes when the studies are reported to the rest of us.

One important nuance we keep forgetting is the sheer size of China's population: about 1.3 billion, more than four times that of the United States. China should have a big economy. But on a per capita basis, the country isn't a dragon; it's a medium-size lizard, sitting in 109th place on the International Monetary Fund's World Economic Outlook Database, squarely between Swaziland and Morocco. China's economy is large, but its average living standard is low, and it will stay that way for a very long time, even assuming that the economy continues to grow at impressive rates.

The big number wheeled out to prove that China is eating our economic lunch is the U.S. trade deficit with China, which last year hit $256 billion. But again, where's the missing nuance?
Nearly 60 percent of China's total exports are churned out by companies not owned by Chinese (including plenty of U.S. ones). When it comes to high-tech exports such as computers and electronic goods, 89 percent of China's exports come from non-Chinese-owned companies. China is part of the global system, but it's still the low-cost assembly and manufacturing part -- and foreign, not Chinese, firms are reaping the lion's share of the profits.
It's most interesting to note that the Chinese - by-and-large - do not own the economic engines driving the country.