Since the breakdown of the US-China trade talks earlier this month, it has often seemed as if Chinese officialdom and state-controlled media have been speaking off of a single script of pure nationalist outrage. But in fact the trade tensions have exposed some interesting differences in views across the system. Consider this part of a Xinhua commentary published on Saturday (you can read the Chinese text or an English summary):
At the negotiating table, the US government made many outrageous demands of China, including restricting the operation and development of state-owned enterprises. Obviously, this goes beyond the scope of trade negotiations and touches on China’s basic economic system. This shows that behind the US trade war with China is an attempt to violate China’s economic sovereignty and force China to harm its own core interests.
Some commentators have noted how the expression “core interests,” previously only attached to territorial issues, has now been applied to state-owned enterprises. But those who track such minutiae will notice that this commentary is signed by two journalists; Xinhua commentaries used to articulate official views are typically written by committee and do not carry a real person’s byline. The more official series of People’s Daily commentaries on the trade war has, as best I can tell, not mentioned state-owned enterprises at all. So my interpretation of this Xinhua piece would be that there are definitely people in the Chinese system who share these views, but the government has probably not (yet) decided to adopt this as its official position.
Now compare this “China has a state-owned economy and we’re proud of it” take with a recent speech from Guo Shuqing, who as Party secretary of the People’s Bank of China and head of the China Banking & Insurance Regulatory Commission is the government’s top-ranking financial official. Guo’s talk on the trade war (Chinese text and English summary) covered a lot of ground, but he also addressed the issue of state ownership:
In recent years, there has been an opinion expressed abroad that China’s rapid economic development is the result of “state monopoly capitalism.” But this kind of talk has no basis. In fact, the composition of China’s economy has become increasingly diversified, and the market share of state-owned enterprises has continuously declined. Including the economic activity of government, the state-owned economy accounts for less than 40% of GDP. Many state-owned enterprises are listed on foreign or domestic stock exchanges, and in fact are joint-stock enterprises; 100% purely state-owned enterprises are rare. Large state-owned enterprises have a large number of subsidiaries whose controlling shareholders are private enterprises. And even the central state-owned enterprises compete with each other. Today, private and foreign investors can enter almost all industries and sectors without any restrictions or barriers.
The tone here is quite different: yes, we have state enterprises, but they are a small and declining part of the economy, and it is more important that there is market competition among all companies. These defensive statements probably are not really completely, objectively true (though I think Guo’s estimate of the state-owned share of GDP is probably not too far off). Guo is what foreigners usually call a “reformer” in the Chinese system, and in a different context I’m sure he would frankly discuss the fact that both foreign and domestic private companies face many barriers. Indeed, at the moment Guo is spearheading a political campaign to increase private-sector firms’ access to bank credit, a campaign whose very existence makes it clear that there is not at all a level playing field.
But I think Guo is here engaging in a strategy that is common for those who want to nudge the Chinese system in a more market-oriented direction: they tend to describe things are being more competitive and market-driven than they actually are, so that marginal change in that direction seems unremarkable and logical. If you pound the table and call China’s state-owned enterprises a core interest of the nation, it becomes quite difficult to change them. If you say, China is mostly a market economy already, then gradually reducing the role of SOEs over time seems pretty unthreatening.
One of the dangers I see in the US-China trade war is that it could become politically more and more difficult for people like Guo to both defend China’s system against foreign attacks, and continue to nudge it in a different direction. “The Americans want us to get rid of state enterprises, and by gosh they’re right” is a much less likely response to US pressure than “How dare those Americans tell us to get rid of our state enterprises?” And that’s true even among people who might not otherwise be disposed to cheer on SOEs.
As is so often the case, Sheng Hong of the Unirule Institute (a libertarian-leaning think tank now mostly banned in China) sees the fundamental political issue quite clearly. Here are a few lines from his recent blog post (I have retranslated the Chinese, since the English version is a bit clunky):
State-owned enterprises account for 10% of exports, so the remaining 90% are made by private and foreign-invested enterprises. Therefore the vast majority of Trump’s tariffs are being imposed on private and foreign enterprises who do not receive government subsidies. This does not correct a market distortion, but actually punishes companies that follow market rules, which makes the market more distorted. …
In order to punish the unfair trade of a small group of companies, Trump has harmed all Chinese companies, and especially private companies. This has caused their feelings to run high and united them in their hatred [of the US], so that in a nationalist fervor they are now supporting their own country’s state-owned enterprises.
In other words, the trade war seems very likely to increase popular support for state-owned enterprises, and push more Chinese people into the view that they do actually represent a core interest of the Chinese nation. And that is probably not in the longer-term interests of the US.
I expect a US trade hawk would likely respond to this by saying that waiting around for China to decide on its own to slim down state-owned enterprises has not worked out for the last decade or so, and the harm this has done justifies putting pressure on China to change more quickly. And they would have a pretty good point. Which is unfortunately why it is now seems hard to be optimistic about the politics on either side.