China and Soft Protectionism

In the Hutong
What, cold again?
2142 hrs.

Protest in Hong-Kong against WTO on december 2005
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Though we may not be talking about it much, those of us who watch China for a living are looking forward with a mixture of dread and anticipation to the upcoming “two meetings,” the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress and the China People’s Political Consultative Committee. Even though the die of China’s future leadership was cast at the Party Congress in November, the coming NPC is the juncture where the reins of government are handed over to the new leadership, and the retiring members of the Hu Jintao/Wen Jiabao entourage graduate to the status of “elder statesmen.” For that reason, this is the point at which we will all be watching for some indication of how Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang will run the show a little differently.

While some will be looking for signs of political reform, my eyes will be cast elsewhere, namely to trade. What I want to find out is whether and how the new administration plans to play by the rules it signed up for when it acceeded to the WTO eleven years ago. Or, indeed, how it intends not to do so.

Since at least the early days of the Hu Jintao administration it was clear that the so-called Fourth Generation of leaders was somewhat less enthusiastic about playing the globalization game, and much more interested in just keeping a lid on the place. Stability was the name of the game, and the spirit of we-can-take-whatever-free-trade-can-dish-out that exuded from Zhu Rongji like a heavy cologne was blown out the window when Zhu left the building in 2003. In its place came a series of policies that I term collectively “Soft Protectionism (软保护主义),” a series of measures and behaviors that allow China to circumvent the intent of the global free trade regime almost at will.

Soft Protectionism, as I see it, consists of several pieces.

National Standards. We see this most blatantly when it comes to technology. The government establishes a standard based on a technology that is locally developed, and by so doing secures all or at least part of the market for Chinese output. The TD-SCDMA standard for third-generation mobile phones is a great example, as is the WAPI wireless LAN standard that was supposed to supplant Wi-Fi. China has learned that this policy is best conducted when it is done within the parameters of global standards-making bodies like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE.) Through organizational activism, horse-trading, and the occasional theatrical tantrum, China is able to gain acceptance for standards that are, in some cases, little more than laboratory experiments. Using this global legitimacy, the standards ploy becomes legitimate. And lest you accuse me of being biased, let me make clear that we Americans all but invented this game, and we perfected it with our bull-headed nationalist behavior when it came to standards for digital televisions and the first digital phones. China is simply turning the tables.

Creative Use of Non-Tariff Barriers. Despite the openness promulgated by the WTO, there are still back doors that will allow governments to selectively protect industries. The first and favorite of these is the so-called National Security Exemption from the World Trade Agreements. The key phrase is “Nothing in this Agreement shall be construed . . . (b) to prevent any contracting party from taking any action which it considers necessary for the protection of its essential security interests”

That exemption gives wide latitude to any government willing to interpret it liberally, and China can and does do so, especially when it comes to information products and software. Other countries use this exemption to ensure that they have access to weapons production in the event of international isolation. The U.S. uses it, for example, to ensure its ships, tanks, and warplanes are all made by factories on US soil, but it does not use it to stop the import of foreign merchant hulls, diesel trucks, or civil aircraft. China, according to Nathaniel Ahrens at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is comfortable crossing that line.

China also manages to restrict the free trade in publications, television, film, and music by stretching the WTO’s Cultural exemption (introduced by France in 1993) beyond the breaking point. Under the guise of protecting its vulnerable culture, China requires specific approval for any publication, recording, video, or film coming into the country. Keep in mind that we are talking about the culture that for nearly two thousand years has managed to assimilate every culture and nation that tried to subjugate it. Nonetheless, the exemption is used at every juncture.

Passive resistance to WTO Rulings. Rather than submit to WTO rulings it does not like, China conducts a passive-aggressive policy of resistance, even at the risk of undermining the institution. Dan Harris of China Law Blog fame put it like this:

“China still intends to remain within the WTO so as to be able to obtain certain trade benefits. Rather than openly disregard the minerals decision, China will resort to “procedural games” (游戏规则) to render any response against China ineffective as a practical matter. China is proud of how it has  used “procedural games” to avoid its responsibilities to respond to adverse WTO decisions and it openly states that it will continue to use this approach in these “national interest” cases. In fact, the term “procedural game” has become a standard feature of the China’s trade policy vocabulary.”

Government Catch-up initiatives. These are the micro-level great leaps that the government attempts to engineer over time in order to substitute domestically-made products and technology for locally-made equivalents. The past thirty years has seen China-government sponsored initiatives succeed in “catching up” in several industries, including shipbuilding, digital telephone switches, heavy trucks, wind-power generators, and solar power, and it is attempting to do so in automobiles, commmercial aircraft, microprocessors, and encryption software. The end result is the same: serviceable and appropriate products from overseas are gradually pushed out by government programs designed to deny them access to the market.

Government encouraged SOE support. This comes in many forms, but the most prevalent is outright cash payments. By offering low-interest or permanently rolled-over loans for state owned enterprises through state-managed policy banks at either the national or local level, China creates effective trade subsidies that are not counted according to international standards. A senior Obama administration official confided in me on the sidelines of the Strategic Economic Dialogue in Beijing last year that China’s export loans dwarfed even the U.S.’s generous programs through the Export Import Bank.

There is not much that the US, the EU, or any grouping of governments can do about any of this, short of an all-out trade war, if China chooses to continue with these policies. What this means is that even as a full-fleged WTO member, China is still capable of providing a protected environment for its firms, and has proven willing to do so.

Such policies will help companies beat foreign interlopers at home, but at what cost? At some point China will confront the other edge of that sword, whether in the form of having its behavior mirrored by other countries with tit-for-tat trade measures within the scope of the WTO; or by discovering that the companies it protected at home were weak and unprepared when venturing abroad.

For Xi Jinping, the choice in the coming months is whether to continue to use Soft Protectionism as the nation’s de-facto trade policy, or whether he will instead switch off the pumps and force Chinese companies to build the resilience necessary to beat global competition away from home. For the companies themselves, as Sunzi said, “Enemies strengthen. Allies weaken.” The wise Chinese company will seek to step out from under Beijing’s umbrella as early as possible to learn to compete on a globalized playing field, rather than a nationalized one.