One of the most troubling features of the growing tensions between China and the United States is that both countries legitimately have a lot to complain about, and typically they are the same things. Three issues are particularly conspicuous at present and at the core of difficulties in the trade relationship – the definitions and status of “market” and “non-market” economies; the role of governments as owners of strategic economic sectors and retaliation over grievances arising from that role; and cyberattacks. When China and the United States criticize each other, they often are launching their complaints from inside glass houses, fortifications especially vulnerable to retaliation.
Almost every member of the World Trade Organization, and even countries (such as Russia) that are not, for international trade purposes are considered “market economies.” The designation is important because the rules of fair trade are written to promote markets, rewarding market transactions and penalizing conduct judged to distort markets. The distinctions emerged at the dawn of the Cold War when the rules enabling private enterprise to compete with state-directed economies were written.
State economic interventions, according to world trade rules, distort markets. State-directed economies – “non-market economies” (“NMEs”) – are inherently distorting. World trade rules deal with them through exclusion, denying them entitlement to the benefits of favorable assumptions.
Although China agreed, when it acceded to membership in the WTO in 2001, that it was not yet accepted as a market economy, it did not expect such recognition to be far behind. Now, nearly a decade later, it seems nowhere in sight, and largely because of objections raised by the United States.
The United States sees too much state direction in the Chinese economy. National plans are reinforced by regional and local planning. State-owned enterprises are dominant, particularly in the most important sectors of steel and energy production. State-owned banks control most lending. Tax schemes systematically favor designated sectors. Utilities providing manufacturers with energy are state-owned. There is no private ownership of land. And today, most important of all, currency is tied to the dollar and does not trade freely in international markets.
China does not see its economy this way. State enterprises are enterprises whose profits go to all shareholders, who are the people of China and not small investing bands of capitalists. They are controlled by boards with mandates to operate competitive, profitable businesses. Banks, controlled by the state, protect the state’s interests, and thus avoid reckless and feckless lending that can jeopardize whole economies. Labor is mobile and subject to competition. Land tenures in Britain, and some other Commonwealth countries, are based on the theory that the Crown owns all of the land, but thriving markets in land tenures exist. No one claims that the Crown’s ownership of all of the land in these countries suggests they are not market economies. The dollar began to float freely and trade on international exchanges less than forty years ago, and no one suggests that prior to the collapse of Bretton Woods the United States was not a market economy. In China’s view, all the people of China are the shareholders of the economy at large, but no less capitalistic in their support of competition and free enterprise. Most observers of China today remark on the Chinese worship of money, no less than in traditional capitalist societies.
The American indictment of China as an NME is defended now from inside a glass house. After the fall of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, the federal government in the United States took large ownership positions in many key banks. The government took effective ownership of the automobile industry. The Congress of the United States endlessly writes tax laws to favor one industry or another, especially the larger ones dependent on exports. Property is private, but government institutions set the terms of ownership and all of the financing that makes ownership possible. And the government in the United States intervenes in the economy regularly to create and save jobs, regulating the labor market, encouraging companies to hire labor and discouraging dismissals.
Neither China nor the United States is an ideal market economy. The distinctions might not matter practically, representing different paths to the acquisition and distribution of the benefits of commerce, except that they do in the application of trade laws. China thinks itself stigmatized by its designation as an NME, and it is disadvantaged in international trade.
Until 2006 there was at least a trade-off. Trade law, as applied everywhere, recognized that state intervention in the economy could not be market-distorting if there were no market. Consequently, trade remedy actions based on subsidy allegations could not be initiated, both because there was no way to measure a subsidy in the absence of market prices, and because a subsidy by definition must distort a market and in an NME there is no market to distort.
In late 2006, the United States began to have things both ways. It said China was enough of a market economy to justify bringing subsidy cases against its exports, yet not enough to shed its designation as an NME. Ever since, China has been manifestly subject to a deliberately unfair trade regime. Yet, when China takes exception, it does so from within its own glass house, and not only because of the conditions that shaped American views in the first place.
Even as China began in 2006 to defend its practices in the United States, its conduct tended to reinforce the indictment instead of refuting it. Instead of acknowledging that it had little control over regional and local governments, their “planning” or their commercial practices, the central government, citing to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, asserted that all governments reported to it. Instead of acknowledging difficulty in amassing information demanded by U.S. authorities in trade investigations, it tried to answer questions without verifiable information. Instead of leaving private enterprises in China to find counsel and defend their own interests, the government convened supposedly independent chambers of commerce and largely directed the management of China’s legal defenses. It relied principally on the advice of Chinese lawyers with very limited knowledge of U.S. law. All these actions tended to convince American investigators that China is state-run and not ready to be considered a market economy.
As a practical matter, this issue has lost most of its importance. U.S. authorities have developed methodologies that would reach the same conclusions about fair trade even were China now recognized as a market economy. But symbolically this issue remains critical.
China’s Retaliation: Mutual Accusations Of Subsidies
Exhausted, perhaps, by the apparent futility in its claim that it should be recognized as a market economy, China has adopted an alternative strategy, accusing the United States of similar market deficiencies. China now formally accuses American exports of being subsidized in an economic system marked by substantial state involvement.
China does not deny that the development of its automobile industry has been heavily subsidized. Instead, China argues that it has graduated from subsidization. This view, however, neglects the history of international trade disputes centered on the privatization of state enterprises that followed on the collapse of Communist regimes. The United States accused all such enterprises, especially in the steel industry, of continuing long-term benefits, arguing that privatization could not extinguish the value of subsidies unless the sale of the state enterprise took place at a full market price. The United States placed the burden of proof that no subsidies passed through from the state to the private enterprise on the foreign private enterprise, a burden virtually impossible to bear because of inadequate documentation.
China, perhaps preemptively, has accused the U.S. automobile industry of exporting subsidized vehicles to China. As we discussed on December 1, 2009 on this blog, the countervailing duty investigation launched in November 2009 arises from a petition that argues the American automobile industry is in historic decline and survives only due to massive government subsidization. The central problem of these accusations, however, is that they are hurled from a glass house. The United States will now almost certainly accuse China of subsidizing the automobiles China is gearing up to sell to the United States. Hence, while the industries in both countries are trying to develop fuel efficient automobiles that will eliminate carbon emissions, thereby serving mutual objectives related to saving the planet, trade laws in both countries already are impeding direct competition based on the quality of the product.
China’s action, contending that the United States does not produce automobiles through free market enterprise, is a transparent retaliation for the American insistence that China is a non-market economy. However, this action carries the disagreement forward into the terrain of the future, where China and the United States need most to cooperate.
The United States has complained for a long time that China has subjected American defense and security establishments to incessant and invasive cyberattacks. These complaints took on a new character and dimension when Google complained that a coordinated Chinese assault on Google customers included an invasion of the accounts of Chinese dissidents. Google, already criticized for accepting Chinese government censorship that affects the internet in no other country, found the latest attacks intolerable. Google threatened to leave China.
The Google-China confrontation led Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to deliver a major speech on “internet freedom” that called for international condemnation of China. Jack Goldsmith, Harvard Law School professor and former senior Justice Department official in the Bush Administration, responded quickly in The Washington Post: “[T]he problem with Clinton’s call for accountability and norms on the global network,” Goldsmith wrote, “is the enormous array of cyberattacks originating from the United States. Until we acknowledge these attacks and signal how we might control them, we cannot make progress on preventing cyberattacks emanating from other countries.”
The cyberattacks from China are presumed to be state-directed because of the state control and censorship of the internet imposed on companies such as Google. Attacks from the United States are presumed, at least by Americans, to be the work of private individuals, free-lancers, the sort of people who fill e-mail boxes incessantly with spam. Goldsmith accepts this orthodoxy, noting that “Scores of individuals and groups in the United States design or employ computer payloads to attack government Web sites, computer systems and censoring tools in Iran and China. These efforts are often supported by U.S. foundations and universities, and by the federal government. Clinton boasted about this support seven paragraphs after complaining about cyberattacks.”
Boarding Up The Glass Houses
China surely knows at least as much about what is happening in its cyber sphere as Professor Goldsmith. The American complaint about Chinese interference with the internet appears well-founded, as is the American complaint about China’s control of its economy and China’s subsidization of industry. But each of these complaints is launched from a glass house. Until China and the United States acknowledge mutually the problem – that their legitimate reciprocal complaints need more solution than aggravation – such complaints will compound and multiply, and the two countries will grow further apart and more antagonistic. They must either appreciate the view that glass houses uniquely afford – a place from which one can see out very well, but others can also see in — stop throwing things at each other from inside the glass houses, or board them up. The last choice, which may define the direction in which things are going, is probably the worst of all.