The US-China trade war as a conflict of values

The tariffs that the Trump administration has imposed on Chinese goods are seen by the Chinese government as unprovoked and unjustified assaults. So there are few opinions more unwelcome right now than that China brought the trade war on itself. Yet that is more or less what a couple of Chinese liberal intellectual are saying openly: that trade conflict with the West is the inevitable result of China’s promotion of a state-centered development model.

One of these voices is Sheng Hong of the well-known Unirule Institute, who published an interesting article on US-China relations on FT Chinese on October 19. The Unirule website has helpfully provided an English translation, but I have re-translated the portions below myself for greater clarity:

China’s reform and opening up is the guarantee of strategic cooperation between China and the US. Such strategic cooperative relations would never have been possible if China was still stuck in the Cultural Revolution, when it practiced class struggle and a planned economy domestically, and exported revolution abroad. Reform and opening up not only brought people economic freedom, but also changes in the political structure. The emancipation of thought has to some extent loosened controls over the freedom of speech, and the freedom of the market economy has allowed people to throw off the shackles of their work units. As the market played a greater role in more areas it reduced government’s direct control over society. Implementing market regulation relied on a just legal system. Only a China that is in this way progressing toward marketization, rule of law and democratization can be accepted by the US on a strategic level, and create the framework for strategic cooperation with the US.

Without a doubt, reform and opening up eliminated the ideological conflict between China and the US, as well as the whole Western world, and gradually brought convergence in terms of values. … Some of the so-called “socialist core values” promoted by the Chinese Communist Party overlap with values recognized by the US and the western world, for instance freedom, democracy, rule of law, equality and justice; while other values, such as civilization, harmony, integrity and dedication, are not in conflict with the values of the US and the western world.

We must clearly recognize that such convergence of values is the basis for strategic cooperation between the US and China. Only through a convergence of values can China be deemed a factor of peace and stability in international relations, and be seen as a trustworthy nation with which close cooperation is possible, rather than one that proclaims the overthrow of the capitalist world and does not renounce the use of violence. Only such a country that advocates peaceful means to resolve disputes between nations,  and does not resort to the threat or use of force, can provide the world with a stable and just international order.

Therefore, China’s reform and opening-up and the China-US strategic cooperation are two inter-related things. That is to say, there is no strategic cooperation without reform and opening-up, nor is there reform and opening up without China-US strategic cooperation. … China should not, and cannot, seek hegemony over the world by going against the rules of civilization accepted by China and most of the countries in the world. Only on the basis of respecting the consensus rules of human civilization can China overcome the mistakes and deviations of the US, and become a civilizational center with moral legitimacy and great economic strength. Today, China faces the risk of leaving the path of reform and opening up, which would risk the loss of strategic cooperative relations with the US. Such a result would be a complete failure.

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Sheng Hong

Somewhat similar sentiments appear in an October 14 speech by Zhang Weiying, a prominent liberal economist at Peking University (liberal in the Chinese sense of favoring free-market policies; Zhang is more of a Hayekian libertarian). The following is my translation of some portions of a summary that was posted on the website of the National School of Development (it was later removed after attracting press coverage).

The rapid development of China’s economy and the improvement of people’s living standards over the past 40 years are facts denied by no one, but there is still controversy over how to understand and interpret these facts. At present, there are two interpretations of China’s growth in the past few decades, the theory of the “Chinese model” and the theory of the “universal model.” The former holds that China’s economic development benefited from a unique Chinese model, with a strong government, many large state-owned enterprises, and wise industrial policy.

The latter holds that China’s remarkable achievements are, just as with the rise of Britain, France, postwar Germany, Japan and the Asian tigers, based on the power of the market and the creative and risk-taking entrepreneurial spirit. China also made use of the technologies accumulated by Western developed countries over the past three hundred years. As I explained in an article published early this year, China has in the past 40 years of reform and opening up experienced the three industrial revolutions that took the Western world 250 years. The latecomer’s advantage means that we have avoided many detours and directly share the technological achievements that others have already obtained through experiments of great cost. …

The above evidence shows that the theory of the “Chinese model” is seriously inconsistent with the facts. China’s high growth over the past 40 years has come from marketization, entrepreneurship and the technology accumulated by the West over three hundred years. The bigger problem is that using the “Chinese model” to explain the achievements of the past 40 years is not beneficial for China’s future development.

Domestically, misleading yourself means a future of self-destruction. Blindly emphasizing the unique Chinese model means going down the road of strengthening state-owned enterprises, expanding government power, and relying on industrial policy. This will lead to a reversal of the reform process, the abandonment of our predecessors’ great cause of reform, and ultimately economic stagnation.

Externally, misleading the world leads to confrontation. From the Western perspective, the “China model” theory makes China into an alarming outlier, and must lead to conflict between China and the Western world. The unfriendly international environment we face today is not unrelated to the mistaken interpretation of China’s achievements over the past 40 years by some economists (both Chinese and foreign). In the eyes of Westerners, the so-called “China model” is “state capitalism,” which is incompatible with fair trade and world peace and must not be allowed to be advance triumphantly without impediment.

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Zhang Weiying

In some ways it is not surprising to hear such statements from Sheng and Zhang, whose views are well established, and also far out of the mainstream of Chinese intellectual opinion. What is interesting is that these views are coming out at this moment–although since the comments of both authors are regularly scrubbed from the Chinese internet, it is hard to know how much impact they have.

3 Comments

  1. The current confrontation over trade is just that… A confrontation over trade. I see no evidence that America is willing to trade only with a China that is “progressing toward marketization, rule of law and democratization,” or only with a China that is gradually adopting western values.

    To be honest, America does not care whether China adopts western values or not. America simply wants fair trade. There are a number of trade issues: foreign ownership of companies in China (A-shares), forced technology transfers, discriminatory tariffs, and many others.

    Addressing trade issues may require policy changes in China, but I think that Sheng and Zhang are incorrect if they view Chinese political reform as a quid pro quo for improved trade relations with America.

    Reply

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