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The Dawn of the Chinese Century

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This chapter explains the impact that China's rise will have on the global economy. As China rises, it will fundamentally restructure the global economy in ways that will need to be anticipated, and this book will help you do just that.
This chapter is from the book

Economists and editorial writers often paint China's ascent as one more case of an emerging economy on its way up, preceded by Japan and the Asian "tigers" (South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong), and soon to be joined by India. It is anything but: China's rise has more in common with the rise of the United States a century earlier than with the progress of its modern-day predecessors and followers. What we are witnessing is the sustained and dramatic growth of a future world power, with an unmatched breadth of resources, lofty aspirations, strong bargaining position, and the financial and technological wherewithal of an established and business-savvy Diaspora. The impact of a rising China on the countries of the world—both developed and developing—will be enormous, and so will be the need to develop strategies and responses to meet the challenge.

This book is not about China bashing in the tradition of the Japan-bashing media of the 1980s, nor a glowing praise of the "Japan as Number 1" genre. Rather, its aim is to capture the impact that the inevitable ascent of China will have on businesses, employees, and consumers around the world—especially in the United States—and assess what firms and individuals will have to do to remain competitive in the new order. It is the position of this book that the "dislocations" brought about by China's advance are not cyclical and temporary but represent fundamental restructuring of the global business system and a repositioning of its key constituencies. We are about to wake up to a new business environment, with new ground rules for business competition, fresh terms of employment, and novel consumption patterns—one that will redraw the battle lines on the political, economic, and social fronts, and one that will place new challenges at the doorstep of nations, firms, and individuals.

China in the Global Economy

If you adjust for purchasing power differentials, China is already the world's second largest economy. Growing at a faster clip than any other major nation, it is on course to surpass the United States as the world's largest economy within two decades. Some observers discount the Chinese growth numbers as exaggerated, but shaving a point, as they suggest, of a GDP growth rate of seven to eight percent would still leave China with the most rapid growth rate in either the developed or developing world over a sustainable time period. Other observers, relying on proxies such as energy consumption, argue that China's growth rate is actually higher than the official numbers suggest. While the Chinese economy faces some serious roadblocks, such as a crumbling banking system, an inefficient service sector, and a significant disenfranchised element, these obstacles are more likely to slow rather than stop China's economic march.

In many industries, especially those that are labor intensive, China is by now the dominant global player. China-based factories make 70 percent of the world's toys, 60 percent of its bicycles, half its shoes, and one-third of its luggage. In those product categories, it is often impossible to find a non-Chinese product on store shelves. In some other product categories, such as textiles and garments, China's share has been held back by quota and tariff walls that are scheduled to come down following the country's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the expiration of international trade regimes. China, though, is not content with remaining a low-tech, labor-intensive manufacturer. It is already active in areas where technology plays an important role and labor is not the dominant cost factor. The country builds half of the world's microwave ovens, one-third of its television sets and air conditioners, a quarter of its washers, and one-fifth of its refrigerators; these products represent the fastest-growing segment of its exports. Manufacturers in other countries increasingly rely on Chinese components or subassemblies to stay competitive.

Unlike Japan and Korea, China will not let go of the labor-intensive segment as it moves up the ladder. Instead, it will leverage its dominance in labor-intensive and mid-technology industries to fund a major push into knowledge-intensive areas that will drive the future world economy. It is this combined push that will catapult China into the ranks of leading economic powers, and it is this blend that will pose unprecedented challenges to its global competitors. With an increasingly assertive foreign policy, China is also determined to translate its growing economic muscle into geo-political stature and counterbalance what it sees as America's global hegemony. At the same time, like other nations, China will pull its growing political weight in promoting its economic interests.

Resources and Capabilities

The resources that China brings to the table are all too often discounted and misunderstood. To say that this is a country of 1.3 billion people has become some sort of a cliché, until one considers the implications of this enormous size. Foreign firms salivated for years at the thought of selling a toothbrush to every Chinese, a delusion and a symbol of corporate utopia when it first emerged in the early 1980s, but increasingly a reality, even if confined by region or product category. China is already the largest market for Boeing's commercial aircraft and American machine tool makers, and its automotive market is the most promising in the world. (China is already Volkswagen's biggest foreign market, ahead of the United States.)

The attractiveness of its domestic market provides China with tremendous bargaining power, a trump card that was unavailable to Japan and South Korea before it. The lure of its domestic market enables China to require technology transfer as a condition for foreign investor entry, wringing unprecedented concessions. In the automotive industry, foreign firms such as General Motors agreed to establish research and development centers at a scope never before contemplated in a developing market. Not only did these manufacturers agree to transfer technology that is arguably close to their core capabilities, but they consented to do so in an environment with virtually no protection of intellectual property rights (IPR) and in parallel alliances never before seen: China is the only country in the world where domestic automotive makers maintain equity ventures with competing foreign partners, which makes it possible to learn "best practices" from both and end up with potentially more knowledge than either foreign party. The aim is to produce Chinese multinationals that will hold their own in a global economy and replicate the success of Toyota, Sony, and Samsung, but in a shorter time frame.

China's size also means a vast pool of human resources. The reservoir includes not only an unlimited supply of menial laborers, but also a large and growing number of engineers, scientists, and skilled technicians, many of whom are employed in government-funded research and development centers or in the increasingly prominent technological centers established by foreign multinationals. The coexistence of cheap labor with increasingly abundant skilled personnel defies common assumptions on national competitiveness as a case of "either or" and underlies China's strategy of sustaining its dominance in labor-intensive industries even as it enters technology-intensive realms.

China's scope and pace of modernization of its own educational system is much greater than that of earlier contenders. Even today, Japan's educational system remains largely insular to foreign influences as well as to change in general, which is something the Japanese acknowledge as a serious obstacle to economic advancement and growth in a knowledge economy. Korean universities, while more open than their Japanese counterparts, have only recently started to actively recruit overseas faculty, although they have been recruiting Korean nationals educated abroad for years. Chinese institutions of higher education are showing more openness, and at least the elite institutions are displaying not only readiness but also enthusiasm for adjusting curriculum and making other changes. China's top universities are moving aggressively to upgrade their infrastructure and skill sets, establishing alliances with Western institutions and companies and actively courting foreign-trained faculty.

In addition to boosting its own educational system, China is counting on an eventual influx of Chinese students returning from abroad. Chinese students are now the largest contingent of foreign students in the United States. According to the Institute of International Education, more than 64,000 students from mainland China studied in the United States in 2002–2003. In the same year, the U.S. also hosted more than 8,000 students from Hong Kong and more than 28,000 from Taiwan, for a total of over 100,000. Chinese students also study in Europe, Australia, and Japan, among other host countries. The Chinese government has been accelerating its efforts to entice the best and brightest of this crop to return, offering "overseas terms" and joint appointments to the most promising prospects. Even without formal incentives, many students as well as practicing scientists and executives are lured back by the wealth of economic opportunities offered by a fast growing economy. These returnees are bringing with them not only academic knowledge, but also something else the Chinese sorely need: application know-how and business-related expertise.

Another important source of technological, scientific, and managerial knowledge resides in the economies of Taiwan and Hong Kong. Pushed in part by Chinese low-end producers breathing at their necks, both territories—not to mention Singapore—have been busy upgrading their educational systems over the past two decades. Hong Kong now boasts eight universities, up from three in the late 1970s. These universities, some of which are world class, play a key role in upgrading China's human resource infrastructure; increasingly, they are host to mainland students, and many of their local graduates end up working directly or indirectly with mainland enterprises.

That said, China has a long way to go before it can overcome key weaknesses, such as lacking a developed service sector to support its manufacturing base and to which to channel some of its superfluous personnel, a banking sector not far from default, and a limited ability to generate technological innovation. Judging from past experience, however, there is every reason to believe that China will be able to overcome these problems, emerging even stronger from the process. A key strength is that China is not alone; rather, it's the hub of a cluster of complementary and increasingly integrated economies that is Greater China.

The Synergies of Greater China

In a cultural, economic, and geo-political sense, China consists not only of the People's Republic, but also of Hong Kong, an entrepreneurial center which, from 1997, has been a Special Administrative Region of China with its own trade and foreign investment jurisdiction; Taiwan, a technologically advanced island, its contentious political status notwithstanding (China sees Taiwan as a renegade province), which is increasingly integrated into the Chinese economy; perhaps even predominantly Chinese Singapore, a center for high technology manufacturing and a base for many multinational enterprises; and a vast Chinese Diaspora that occupies the ranks of much of the business elites of Southeast Asia and is active in business circles around the globe. An example is Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa, a diversified conglomerate with close to $20 billion in revenue and operations in more than 40 countries.

Put these different parts of the Chinese puzzle together, and you find unequaled potential: a human resource pool that is not only the largest in the world but also includes a large number of scientists, engineers, and seasoned executives; an advanced and rapidly progressing technological infrastructure, and a leading industry position in many emerging technologies (Taiwan is the world's largest producer of notebook computers); vast capital (together, the economies of China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore have three-quarter trillion dollars in foreign reserves); a dominant trade position (Hong Kong's container port is among the busiest and most advanced in the world); major bases and Asian regional headquarters for multinational enterprises (Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore); and global business savvy (the Chinese Diaspora).

Increasingly integrated (Singapore somewhat less so) and dependent on their mainland China business, those economies possess complementary and synergetic attributes of capital, skill, knowledge, human resources, and market savvy that can deliver development on a magnitude and at a pace never before seen in a developing economy. At almost $1.4 trillion, Greater China's (the PRC, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore) merchandise trade trails only that of the European Union and the U.S. and is almost double the Japanese volume. In an increasingly global economy, this volume forms the basis for tremendous bargaining power as other trading nations weigh their responses to trade and economic issues in the context of broader flows and their own exports. Greater China is rapidly becoming the hub for an even larger and rapidly growing Asian economy: Mainland China is already South Korea's biggest export market, while Greater China is the biggest market for virtually all other Asian nations.

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