Martin Jacques delivered the keynote address at the 32nd Annual Camden Conference in Camden, Maine, US on February 22, 2019. The talk was titled “What China Will Be Like as a Great Power”.
The speculation over the impact that coronavirus has had on the Chinese government and its reputation continues to grow. Tom Orlik, Chief Economist at Bloomberg and author of newly published ‘China: The Bubble that Never Pops’, joins The Final Round to discuss his findings and what can be expected from the Chinese economy in the next decade. S
Joseph Eugene Stiglitz (/ˈstɪɡlɪts/; born February 9, 1943) is an American economist, public policy analyst, and a professor at Columbia University. He is a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (2001) and the John Bates Clark Medal (1979). He is a former senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank and is a former member and chairman of the (US president’s) Council of Economic Advisers.some ways I one has to recognize that42:32China may have been lucky they began the42:37development strategy just at the moment42:39when the West was very open to importing42:43manufacturing goods it was a moment42:49where because there were a large profit42:54opportunities in the West that sustained42:58the opening with wrong without regard to43:01the effects and workers over the over43:04the effects and the overall economy so43:09in a way China’s success is testimony to43:13the failures of democratic politics in43:16the United States in Western Europe43:19because the rules the game were designed43:26worked to advantage American43:29corporations Western European43:31corporations with no attention paid to43:37the consequences to the workers as the43:41United States d industrialized now some43:43countries in Europe did pay attention43:45and they did have active labor market43:49policies that shifted workers from the43:53old sectors that were dying into the new43:55sectors and Scandinavia has been very43:58good in these active labor market44:00policies which I think are really44:02important in the United States we didn’t44:06do that even though economic theory said44:11opening up of trade between an44:14banks country like the United States and44:16China West events would result in lower44:21real incomes for unskilled workers44:24there’s a missing Stover theorem and it44:28was unambiguously clear even though we44:31were getting cheaper goods real incomes44:34of unskilled workers would go down and44:36it’s only if you had a mystical belief44:39in trickle-down economics would you44:41think otherwise but our politicians did44:44have a mystical belief in trickle-down44:46economics and they asserted this over44:51and over again and so even when you know44:54in the Democratic Party we tried to get44:57Trade Adjustment Assistance we try to44:59have some active labor market policies45:01when we couldn’t because of concerns45:04about austerity and not enough budget45:07concerns they wouldn’t work we went45:11ahead anyway there is a growing sense45:15the United States though that actually45:16the agenda on the right was to increase45:23unemployment and suffering you say why45:26would they anybody you know why do45:29people want suffering well it was part45:32of a concerted agenda if you look at to45:35weaken the bargaining power of workers45:38and drive down the wages which increases45:41profits so if you look at this from a45:45conservative point of view the reforms45:47and our labor laws and reforms in the45:51way antitrust policy was enforced that45:55reform is a not the right word but45:58changes in those laws changes in46:02corporate governance and implicit46:04understandings the legal frameworks and46:08in the investment agreements in the46:10trade agreements the investment46:12agreements they gave more secure46:14property rights if American firms46:16invested abroad than if they vested at46:18home which meant that they were46:21encouraged to invest abroad which also46:24meant that if the firm if workers came46:27to affirming46:28we want higher wages and the firms know46:31if you we give you if you continue to46:35demand higher wages we’re going to leave46:37that was more credible so I think it was46:43a deliberate strategy to drive down the46:45wages of workers and it worked in terms46:50of the economics that I described before46:52it did drive down the wages but it has46:55now led to these this political backlash46:58with which we are dealing so there is a47:04relationship between China’s success and47:07some of the problems that we’re facing47:09it wasn’t inevitable we could have47:11managed it better we should have managed47:14it better but we didn’t but just as a47:16footnote the point I’m making is that47:20that was a particularly47:23Africa won’t be able to follow the47:25manufacturing export-led growth model47:28that led to the success of East Asian47:32countries including China in fact now47:36globally manufacturing employment is in47:40decline in any country that believes47:44that manufacturing should be at the47:46center of their economic policy is47:48misguided it can be part of it it can’t47:52be at the center well let me just47:57conclude by SEP some let me just48:02conclude by a set of remarks about that48:07in a way that pertain to all countries48:10but we’re we’re china realized this in a48:16way more forcefully than many others48:18have and that is that reform is a48:20never-ending process that societies are48:28always changing technology’s changing48:30and therefore the policies that are48:36going to make a society successful have48:38to change in a corresponding way48:41for China China’s entering a new stage48:43of development it’s facing critical48:46problems of inequality health48:47environment livable cities markets won’t48:51solve those problems in fact many of48:53those problems have been created by the48:56fact that they had markets that were too49:00unfettered to under-regulated49:02they’re going to have to regulate them49:04better there are further questions posed49:09by changing globalization the49:12recognition of the risks of excessive49:14financialization the West49:18I believe hasn’t succeeded in adequately49:20taming financial markets as you know49:23this is this week is the 10th49:25anniversary Lehman Brothers and and a49:27lot of people are talking about have we49:29done enough I think it’s absolutely49:32clear no and what’s particularly49:39disturbing is the Trump administration49:41is trying to undo the inadequate things49:44that we’ve already done again I was at a49:48dinner right before the inauguration of49:51Trump where one of his chief economic49:54advisors was there49:56I don’t normally associate with his49:57people might make it clearer but it was50:02an embassy dinner so I and I didn’t know50:06he was going to be there anyway50:10and he was talking about how he was50:16going to deregulate the financial sector50:19within weeks after taking office and the50:26first thing that struck me is he clearly50:28had no idea of our democratic processes50:31yeah he really thought you know Trump is50:34the dictator he gets to write rewrite50:36all the rules no no none of these50:38processes that we put in place as50:40democratic checks against authoritarian50:43leaders no knowledge of that was just so50:46clear but the second point I was going50:50to ask what somebody who asked it before50:51I did quizzically50:55didn’t we have a crisis in 2008 and the51:02implicit answer was that was ancient51:04history and we have to move on but it’s51:09not ancient history and I think the51:12risks are very much with us one of the51:17concerns that I increasingly seeing in51:20China is that as China grows the51:26influence of vested interest will grow51:28and you can feel it already51:32another just a little anecdote every51:36year when I go to China I often talked51:42to the finance minister and I’ve been51:43pushing them to move away from their51:46debt finance growth model to more tax51:50financed in particular I’m telling them51:53they need a carbon tax and it would51:56raise a lot of revenue it would help51:59clean up their air pollution exceed me52:02an obvious idea and the finance minister52:05every year says great idea and he says52:10we have some political problems which he52:14means the auto industry the coal52:16industry this you know steel industry52:18and so forth we’re gonna work on it next52:22year we go through the same conversation52:27as China has grown and it has taken on52:31many of the features of a modern vested52:37interest economy we’re getting change is52:41becoming more difficult and that of52:43course is is very worrisome but the52:49principles that guided China in the52:53first 40 years are likely to continue to52:55be relevant and that by that I mean the52:57pragmatism crossing the river by feeling53:00this still stone they’re going to be new53:02problems not fully foreseen would that53:04appear it will have to address these53:08problems53:09using insights from theory and past53:11experience and the second critical point53:14is openness there is much to be learned53:18from experiences of others and from the53:20ink sykes of non-ideological economic53:23analysis and again we’re in a particular53:29moment where I hate to keep coming back53:34to the United States but we’re a little53:35bit obsessed with with our problems one53:41can’t help but reflect on the closed53:45mindedness of our current administration53:48of not looking around you know if you53:52think you’re number one and you think53:54that you’re the there’s nothing to learn53:57from anybody else that is part of the54:02beginning of the end so we hope that54:05this is just a temporary interlude but54:09as we reflect on what makes I know54:14successful in the ways it is I think54:18there are a lot of lessons for all of us54:19to think about how we can make our own54:21economy successful for all of us thank54:24you54:30
China’s state media have been using the pandemic and U.S. protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd to rally its citizens at home, as Beijing’s relationships around the world grow tenser. Photo Composite: Crystal Tai/WSJ
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Despite the name, rare earths just aren’t that rare
America’s trade war with China has been quietly escalating for years, but this week it took a turn for the disastrous. Huawei, once the rising star of China’s tech industry, has been cut off from US suppliers, leaving the company effectively stunted. China is likely to respond somehow, but with a multitude of options on the table, many in the tech industry are now considering nightmare scenarios.
One particularly chaotic option would be a ban on the export of rare earths — raw materials that are crucial for electronics. These elements are produced mostly in China, and used in the US for everything from electric cars to wind turbines, smartphones to missiles.
Chinese state media have backed the idea, calling America’s dependence on Chinese rare earths “an ace in Beijing’s hand.” President Xi Jinping hinted at that possibility when he visited a rare earth facility at the beginning of this week. (As a ministry spokesperson commented with what seemed like a nod and a wink: “It is normal that the top leader investigates relevant industrial policies. I hope everyone can interpret it correctly.”)
Rare earth elements are sometimes described as the “vitamins of chemistry,” as small doses produce powerful salutary effects. A sprinkle of cerium here and a pinch of neodymium there makes TV screens brighter, batteries last longer, and magnets stronger. If China suddenly shut off access to these materials, it would be like rewinding the tech industry back a few decades. And no one wants to ditch their iPhone and go back to a BlackBerry.
Experts in the field, though, are much less concerned about such a chilling scenario. They say that while a restriction on rare earth exports would have some immediate adverse effects, the US and the rest of the world would adapt in the long run. “If China really cuts off supply entirely then there are short term problems,” Tim Worstall, a former rare earth trader and commodities blogger tells The Verge. “But they’re solvable.”
Far from being an ace in the hole, it turns out rare earths are more of a busted flush.
China currently dominates the world’s supply of rare earth elements. Credit: USGS
The reasons for this are numerous, and span geography, chemistry, and history. But the most important factor is also the simplest to explain: rare earths just aren’t that rare.
A group of 17 elements, rare earths are what the USGS (United States Geological Survey) describe as “moderately abundant.” That means they’re not as common as oxygen, silicon, and iron, which make up the vast majority of the Earth’s crust, but some are on a par with elements like copper and lead, which we don’t consider exotic or scarce. Significant deposits exist in China, but also Brazil, Canada, Australia, India, and the United States.
The challenge with producing rare earths (and the reason they were given their name) is that they’re rarely found in concentrated lumps. These are chemically sociable elements, happy to bond with other compounds and minerals and tumble about in the dirt. This makes extracting rare earths from common earth like convincing a drunk friend to leave a raucous party: a lengthy and harrowing procedure.As Eugene Gholz, a rare earth expert and associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame puts it: “Once you take it out of the ground, the big challenge is chemistry not mining; converting the rare earths from rock to separated elements.”
Unlike convincing that drunk friend, though, this process involves a series of acid baths and unhealthy doses of radiation. This is one of the reasons that countries like the US have been more or less happy to cede production of rare earths to China. It’s a messy, dangerous business, so why not let someone else do it? Other factors also helped, including lower labor costs and the existence of Chinese mines that produce rare earths as a byproduct.
China’s sway in the rare earths market is a fairly recent state of affairs. Between the 1960s and the 1980s, the majority of the world’s supply was actually produced in America, from the Mountain Pass mine in California. The mine’s processing plant was shut down in 1998 after problems disposing of toxic waste water, and the whole site was mothballed in 2002.
It’s only from the 1990s onward that China has shouldered the bulk of production, along with the associated environmental costs. (In 2010, the Chinese government estimated that the industry was producing 22.05 million tons of toxic waste each year.) An oft-referenced figure is that China now produces some 95 percent of the world’s rare earths, but Gholz says this statistic is “wildly out of date.” The USGS pegs China’s part as closer to 80 percent.
China’s Consumption Of Coal Steadily On The Rise
Low labor costs and lax environmental regulations precipitated China’s rise in rare earth mining. Photo by China Photos/Getty Images
That’s still a substantial chunk of the world’s supply, though, and with no doubt that these are important commodities, the question is: what happens if China does cut off the US?
Luckily, we have a very good idea of what would happen next because it’s already happened before. Back in 2010, China stopped exports of rare earths to Japan following a diplomatic incident involving a fishing trawler and the disputed Senkaku Islands. Gholz wrote a report of the fallout from this incident in 2014, and found that despite China’s intentions, its ban actually had little effect.
Chinese smugglers continued to export rare earths off the books; manufacturers in Japan found ways to use less of the materials; and production in other parts of the world ramped up to compensate. “The world is flexible,” says Gholz. “When you try to restrict supplies to politically influence another country, people don’t give up, they adapt.”
He says that although his report examined the rare earth industry as it was in 2010, the “conclusions are pretty much the same” in 2019.
If China did turn off the rare earth tap, there would be enough private and public stockpiles to supply essential sectors like the military in the short term. And while an embargo could lead to price rises for high-tech goods and dependent materials like oil (rare earths are essential in many refining processes), Gholz says it’s highly unlikely that you would be unable to buy your next smartphone because of a few missing micrograms of yttrium. “I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. It just doesn’t seem plausible,” he says.
Even though a ban on rare earth exports is just speculation at this point, companies have begun to preempt any new Chinese restrictions. American chemical firm Blue Line Corp and Australian rare earth miner Lynas have already proposed new production facilities in the US, and rare earth stocks around the world have surged in response to the threat.
“IT’S NOT LIKE STARTING FROM SCRATCH.”
In the event of a ban, one of the most important backstops would be America’s Mountain Pass mine. Although the mine was closed after Chinese rare earths drove down prices, the facility is intact and resumed production last January. Recent estimates suggest it’s already supplying one-tenth of the world’s rare earth ores (though not their processing), and in the event of an embargo, it would be possible to bring Mountain Pass back up to speed.
“By far the cheapest and fastest way to bring more material into the market — if there was a disruption — is just sitting there in California,” says Gholz. “It’s not like starting from scratch.”
Worstall agrees: “Producing rare earth concentrate is near trivially simple,” he says. “I, or any other competent person, could produce that from a standing start within six months in any volume required.”
The kicker, both say, is how much that process might cost. Especially as any refining and separation plants built in the US would have to meet far higher environmental standards.
As we’re seeing with Huawei and other casualties of Trump’s trade war, the real question isn’t whether adaptation is possible in the future, it’s how much pain you can stomach in the present.
The Chinese Communist Party has always relied on deception to wrong-foot rivals and attain the advantage in negotiations. Deng Xiaoping famously counseled, “Hide your strength, bide your time.” But Xi Jinping prefers to exaggerate China’s economic strengths and conceal its vulnerabilities.
Mr. Xi’s brazen approach conditions other countries to believe that Beijing enjoys a superior hand, that China’s rise and dominance are inevitable. These erroneous beliefs weaken the will of injured parties, including Western nations, to resist predatory Chinese behavior.
President Trump and Mr. Xi confirmed a “phase 1” trade agreement Friday. Both need the deal for domestic political and economic reasons. But in every negotiation, pressure is relative, and the U.S. has more political and economic leverage than China. This insight will help the U.S. during the more difficult second phase of negotiations.
Consider why China engages in predatory, illegal economic behavior. It needs to grow rapidly to maintain fiscal stability, manage its debt and advance its strategic and military ambitions. China can’t become the dominant power in the Indo-Pacific without sustained growth. The only reliable way Beijing has of maintaining adequate growth is to support its companies with cheap credit. The rise in Chinese corporate debt since the 2008-09 financial crisis has been one of the largest and most rapid—in relative and absolute terms—for any 10-year period in peacetime economic history.
China cannot significantly deleverage without drastic changes to its political economy. The model involves offering state-owned enterprises and national champions such as Huawei cheap finance and privileged domestic-market access at the expense of an independent private sector. China showers state businesses with subsidies and stolen intellectual property, and shields them from foreign competition.
The Chinese domestic economy is slowing because of chronic overinvestment. This provides the economic rationale behind plans such as the Belt and Road Initiative and Made in China 2025. The former is a scheme to export excess capacity and lock in new regional markets for Chinese firms, especially in infrastructure. The latter is a new export-oriented approach based on dominating increasingly important advanced and high-technology sectors in global markets. Both attempt to create external commercial opportunities for protected, unreformed Chinese firms without the need to reform the country’s main economic and political institutions.
That brings us to the question of negotiating leverage.
The current Chinese model is self-defeating. Less-deserving companies continue to receive the bulk of finance and opportunity. The staggering misallocation of capital is worsening, which makes the mushrooming debt even harder to manage. And allocation of opportunity is political. This means that the private sector, and therefore household income, will continue to remain artificially suppressed—putting even more pressure on Beijing to stimulate growth through further credit expansion.
The U.S. has a far more adaptive and diverse economy than China. China’s economy is inefficient, bloated, dysfunctional—plagued by institutions and policies that are not fit for their purposes. If the tariff war resumes, it will continue to prove much more disruptive to China than to the U.S.
Moreover, by calling attention to the seriousness of Chinese trade violations, Mr. Trump is properly recasting China as the main threat to a fair and sustainable global economic system. Multinational companies are gradually assessing the commercial risk that sovereign risk poses to them—the possibility that China will arbitrarily alter laws or regulations or fail to honor government bonds when they mature.
In recent years, Mr. Xi has been openly accused by former senior officials and influential journalists and academics of mismanaging the relationship with America, decisively abandoning any market-based reforms that would make the Chinese economy more resilient and agile, and overreaching with his aggressive promotion of Belt and Road and Made in China 2025. Leaks about the abhorrent treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang seem designed to undermine him, while continued protests in Hong Kong are a stark rejection of his authoritarianism.
Mr. Xi’s purging of more than 1.5 million officials, including top generals and party members, will come back to bite him. In addition to holding a weaker economic hand, Mr. Xi is far more vulnerable to internal rebellion, and therefore more desperate for economic pain relief, than the American president.
Mr. Trump has threatened to walk away if any agreement—including the final details of the phase 1 deal—is not to his liking. He indicated in “The Art of the Deal” that his style is to aim high and keep pushing and pushing until he gets what he wants. Let’s hope he follows through. The national interest depends on it.