May 28, 2005, 7:56PM
EXAMINING THE MYTHS: The China outsiders don’t know :Beyond cocktail party wisdom about 1 billion neighbors
BEGINNING with Marco Polo’s sojourn in China in the late 13th century, there
have been two Chinas ? the China of the imagination, as interpreted by
Westerners, and the real China as experienced by the Chinese. Post-imperial
China provided some of the most powerful images of the 20th century.
As we still see in old newsreels and magazines, Shanghai in the 1930s was a
center of international glamour and intrigue. Next came the utter destruction
of World War II, then Mao’s China and the rampages of the Red Guard.
Today, China’s economic rise, symbolized by space-needle towers and
construction cranes in major cities, occupies a similar romanticized place in
the minds of foreign commentators. As I write this article while flying over
China, I am reminded of what lies beneath. China has its own vast and
enduring reality, its own strengths and its own weaknesses.
When outsiders speak of China, when you see media images of China, you should
remind yourself that most of what we Westerners see and discuss are simply
journalistic myths. The problem with these myths is that they interfere with
our ability to understand what is really going on in China, and what is
really going on is hugely important to everyone on the planet.
Chinese history is barely studied in the United States. I find that many
people who talk about China sprinkle a few facts on a well-worn agenda. I
often hear comments that the Chinese are taking our jobs and stealing our
intellectual property. The 2 million U.S. workers who have lost their
manufacturing jobs probably don’t realize that many millions more Chinese
have lost theirs over the same period of time, mostly because of
restructuring of state-owned enterprises. U.S. media companies upset over
intellectual property violations in China seemingly don’t remember when
similar laws were flouted in Japan. Things got better when Japanese companies
grew and needed these same protections themselves.
Protection of intellectual property is by and large a developmental problem
shared by all countries at some point in their history.
Another oft-cited claim is that the imbalance of Chinese men to women will
lead to roving bands of single men who will build an army based on sexual
frustration, which will inevitably attack the United States.
These are just a few examples of cocktail party wisdom about China that
reveal our lack of basic knowledge. Let’s explore a few myths:
? China is emerging from a 1,000-year slumber.
Actually, China had the world’s largest economy less than 200 years ago, when
it accounted for 30 percent of world’s total value of goods and services and
had a population of more than 300 million. Today, we are witnessing the re-
emergence of China as an international economic and political power.
It is this shared national vision that unites China, and its newly emerging
middle class is the vanguard of this dream. Misperceptions about this group,
the target of both pro-democracy advocates and Western ad agencies, are
subtly intertwined with many myths.
? China is a juggernaut. We have to do something stop them, like force them
to revalue their currency.
The best possible outcome for the U.S. consumer is for China’s economy to
keep expanding at its current rate. China’s middle class works and saves so
that the Chinese government can buy billions of dollars of U.S. Treasury
bonds, low-interest debt that supports the spending habits of both the U.S.
government and American consumers, who in turn buy Chinese-manufactured goods
at Wal-Mart, which keeps the whole cycle going.
Realistically, even a massive revaluation, on the order of 30 percent, would
not get U.S. companies now manufacturing in China to shut down and reopen in
the U.S. We are in too deep, and China is too entrenched as the world’s
It is the U.S. consumer who cannot be stopped. We have an absolute
codependence, built upon our addiction to the new opiate of the masses,
plastic money. The Chinese are the frugal relatives that we, the big
spenders, go to for a loan when our bad habits catch up with us.
Are they to be feared?
Given the choice, which would you rather be: the Chinese producer or the U.S.
? China has a modern financial system.
China’s financial system, particularly its banks, is driven by policy
considerations and connections rather than good commercial credit guidelines.
In spite of minuscule returns, China’s middle class keeps saving, and in fact
has achieved the highest savings rate of any country ? nearly 40 percent of
income. The Chinese have incentives to save, not because of high interest
rates but because the world’s largest socialist country no longer offers its
citizens much of a social safety net.
The financial system is hard to measure because the informal lending market
is huge, a result of deformities that make it difficult for anyone other than
an unprofitable state-owned enterprise to obtain credit.
Many Chinese look at the stock market as a kind of casino, where only
insiders make money. Nowhere else in world financial history has a stock
market shown such poor returns, with an economy growing at an average annual
rate of 10 percent.
? China’s middle class is clustered in the east, and everyone in the interior
is poor and rural.
Surprisingly, rural-income growth is outpacing urban incomes. Rich farmers
and wealthy entrepreneurs are found throughout the interior. Recent increases
in food prices and the lowering of agricultural taxes have bolstered this
trend, with the middle class now sprinkled throughout urban and rural China.
A further fine point: China has more than 200 cities with populations of more
than 1 million and the most populous city in the world, not just China, is
Chongqing, located squarely in the center of China ? nearly 1,000 miles from
the eastern seaboard.
? China’s middle class alone is bigger than the entire population of the
Well, certainly not now. By most reliable estimates, being a member of the
middle class, defined as earning more than $10,000 per household per year, is
a status attained by less than 5 percent of the population. However, true
income is difficult to measure because of the huge underground economy ?
thought by some to be half again as large as China’s official economy.
Aspirations of wealth are high. A study by the Chinese Academy of Sciences
found that nearly half of all Chinese consider themselves middle class, even
though they do not meet the objective economic criteria. By 2020, the middle
class could form a solid majority. China has a population bulge similar to
the baby boom generation in the United States, which raises the question of
whether China will grow rich before it grows old. If not, it will witness one
of the biggest demographic time bombs in world history.
? Chinese middle-class consumers will force democracy to take root in China.
The assumption is that along with their Big Macs and lattes, the Chinese are
imbibing the precepts of democracy and free elections. The common assumption
among Westerners is that economic prosperity will result in a middle class
demanding a political structure that would protect their new wealth. There is
not much evidence to support this, other than a proliferation of lawsuits.
According to Elizabeth Economy of the Council for Foreign Relations, “So
far … the middle class has not organized in any meaningful way to push for
wholesale political change.”
What unites well-to-do Chinese? Belief in the re-emergence of China as a
superpower that hosts the Olympics and launches manned spacecraft. Lest
anyone forget, China is still a communist country, founded on the principle
of equalization of economic and other resources. These resources are far more
limited than we realize and will hamper economic growth. The poor state of
the environment, severe water shortages and a truly scary health-care system
could profoundly handicap China, as well as hurt the rest of the world.
The central political ques-tion is: What are the conse-quences for China’s
leaders if incomes converge, or, conv-ersely, if they divide increas-ingly
between rich and poor?
Whatever the outcome, we have to be careful not to layer our expectations of
what China might become over our unexamined assumptions.
Hale is CEO and publisher of China Online, a Chicago-based business and
economic news and analysis service. She is working on a book about the
monetary history of China and wrote this article last week during a trip
Copyright The Los Angeles Times)