Made In The U.S.A.

China: Still Developing

In Adventures on November 29, 2009 at 12:44 am

Today on NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross spoke to Orville Schell, an expert on China. They discussed many issues–climate change, clean energy, US/China relations, trade, human rights and more–because they’re all related. And they all affect us over here in North America. The thing that really struck me was this: China is still a developing country.

We buy something like four-and-a-half times more stuff than we sell to China. We’re consumers, they’re producers. We can’t compete with them, period. They own a trillion dollars worth of our T bills. But because the Chinese free economy is relatively new, the country is still officially considered to be a “developing” nation by the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund. (In fairness, the average Chinese produces only a quarter of the greenhouse gases that an American does. But I wouldn’t expect that to last for long.) As an officially “developing” nation, they don’t have to follow the rules that the rest of us do.

This is now a two-way street. You go to these cities you may never have heard the names of… and you go through these Silicon Valley-like parks of startups and laboratories, and it’s really stunning. And you realize that there’s an awful lot going on here and that it isn’t simply a question of China taking our technology and pirating it and stealing it, they have a lot themselves and it’s going to be a very short while before… we may be competitors but the competition will be going both ways. And the truth is, I think if the United States cannot understand that the terms of the game have changed, and do that very quickly and try to seek some more collaborative relationship with China, we may miss the opportunity when the Chinese then find it no longer interesting to do so. It’s quite an alarming thought… But that is the reality, and America is very slow to wake up to this new reality because it’s happened so rapidly. China’s rise has happened suddenly, and our decline with this economic crisis is now happening more precipitously.

There are many people who think we ought to invent a third category for a somewhat developed country because “developing” doesn’t quite describe China. On the other hand, China is very loathe to abandon that status because there are a lot of special dispensations that come to a developing country. You remember when Robert Zelig of the World Bank proposed that the US and China really ought to form a “G2” and you might think that China would be kind of flattered to be among the elect, the two top countries in the world, but no they didn’t want to do that at all. They don’t want the responsibilities of a developed country and they don’t want to lose the perks that come from being a developing country–such as not having to set defined limits on their carbon emission…

I don’t think China’s going to willingly give up this status, curiously. They spent all this last century trying to overcome their weakness, their backwardness… and now they’ve sort of overcome it and we’re willing to annoint them with the crown of G2 status or developed country status and they say no, no, wait, we quite like it down here in the developing country world where the burdens are lighter. It is somewhat paradoxical.

If you’d like to listen to more–and I totally understand if you’d rather pretend we’re still in control of our own economic fate–click here.

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