On March 8, 2000, President Bill Clinton made a persuasive pitch to Washington’s foreign policy elite, Congress and the international community, on the merits of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization:
“Membership in the WTO, of course, will not create a free society in China overnight or guarantee that China will play by global rules. But over time, I believe it will move China faster and further in the right direction……..We have a far greater chance of having a positive influence on China’s actions if we welcome China into the world community instead of shutting it out.”
That was little more than a decade after the Beijing government massacred thousands of students participating in pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, June 1989. Twenty years have passed since China’s 2002 accession to the World Trade Organization. Let’s review how that is working out.
Zero progress toward a free society
Xi Jinping reversed any progress, towards a more open society, made under Hu Jintao. Xi revoked the term limit on his leadership as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party; increased censorship and mass surveillance; imprisoned minorities; suppressed news of the COVID outbreak in early 2020, causing a global pandemic; he shredded the one-country-two-systems agreement with the UK and cracked down on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong; while threatening democratic Taiwan with invasion.
Malign influence on democratic institutions
Rather than opening up China to Western influence, an open Western society proved highly susceptible to Chinese influence operations. Efforts to suppress free speech include infiltration of universities through establishment of Confucius Institutes and research grants; the Belt-and-Road initiative to increase control over fledgling democracies in the Asia-Pacific and Africa; and growing control over appointments in UN bodies. North Korea, for example, has been appointed as the current Chair of the UN Conference on Nuclear Disarmament.
Growing geopolitical challenge
Trade with the West has empowered China’s development of a powerful nuclear ICBM force, including hypersonic weapons; seizure and militarization of disputed shoals in the South China Sea, flouting international conventions; and development of a blue-water navy to expand its influence far beyond its shores.
Negative economic impact on the US.
Ignore the flowery speeches about democracy and freedom from the former President, the primary purpose of China’s admission was to enrich US corporations. When President Clinton described China’s admission as a “win-win”, you can be sure that US multinationals understood this to mean increased profit margins and new markets. China was also meant to benefit economically, to the extent that workers’ standard of living would need to rise so that they could consume more mass-produced Western goods.
It didn’t work out as planned.
Corporate profit margins rose to new highs, post-2002, as employee compensation fell.
The price was destruction of millions of manufacturing jobs as US companies shifted factories to Asia, where labor costs were a fraction of those in the US. Initially the erosion started with low-skill, menial jobs but soon expanded to high technology sectors as China’s industrial base grew.
Industrial production in the US stalled after the 2008 crash, losing an entire decade of growth.
Current account deficits ballooned as Chinese exports flowed into the US, supported by massive capital outflows from China to maintain their currency peg against the US Dollar. Capital outflows prevented the Yuan from appreciating against the Dollar — which would have eroded China’s pricing advantage in international markets.
The US slipped from being a net creditor in the 1980s to the world’s biggest debtor, with a negative net international investment position (NIIP) of more than $18 trillion.
Federal debt climbed to a precarious 128% of GDP in 2021 as the government ran ever-larger deficits to support the economy and offset the massive current account hemorrhage.
The traditional relationship between government deficits and unemployment started to break down in the late 1980s. Unemployment (RHS) is on an inverted scale below, so high unemployment is near the bottom and low figures are near the top of the chart. Before the late 1980s, deficits were relatively small , increasing to between 4% and 6% of GDP when unemployment spiked during a recession. But deficits were kept close to 3% of GDP in the Reagan-Bush (HW) era, even when employment had recovered (blue circle). The hoped-for boost to GDP failed to materialize but the experiment was nevertheless repeated, even more aggressively, by Trump in 2016-2020, cutting corporate taxes in the hope that this would boost growth. But GDP growth again remained low.
The Fed started expanding its balance sheet after the 2008 global financial crisis, in order to support a massive fiscal deficit of 10% of GDP, and an even larger 15% deficit in 2020. The effect was self-reinforcing as QE discouraged foreign investors from purchasing Treasuries — out of fear that the Dollar was being debased — forcing the Fed to inject ever-larger amounts of QE to make up for the absence of foreign funding. Money supply (M2) spiked upwards as a percentage of GDP, adding to debasement fears.
There was one win, however, from globalization that the Fed was quick to claim. Low inflation is mistakenly attributed to Fed skill in managing the economy rather than the real reason: erosion of the US industrial base which undermined wages growth, particularly in the manufacturing sector.
Admission of China to the World Trade Organization in 2002 was an unmitigated disaster, unleashing a massive deflationary shock that destabilized the global financial system. Despite being a developing economy, China become a major exporter of capital, as well as goods, upsetting the level playing field of international exchange rates. This helped to suppress the Yuan, giving Chinese manufacturers an advantage over Western competitors, and caused the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs in the West. The Western response was to run larger deficits, causing public debt to balloon to precarious levels, while central banks efforts to support growing fiscal debt destabilized the global financial system.
The recent surge in inflation exposed central banks inability to protect their currencies, without causing a global recession, undermined by precarious public debt levels and bloated central bank balance sheets.
Sir James Goldsmith — interviewed here in 1994 by Charlie Rose — was on the money when he referred to breach of the social contract between capital and labor, that ensured political stability in the West, and the betrayal of trust between political leaders and their electorate.
The present course is unsustainable in the long run and we anticipate an era of de-globalization as nations on-shore critical supply chains. There is no other currency that can compete with the Dollar’s status as global reserve currency but the system is likely to evolve towards a multi-polar world, with several separate trading/currency systems backed by commodities such as Gold, Silver and Base Metals. Oil would be ideal, as energy is central to the global economy, but storage is cumbersome; so a fixed exchange rate between oil and gold/base metals is more likely.