From the mid-Renaissance until the late Eighteenth Century, when the British began selling opium through the port city of Canton, China devoured the world’s currency. All of the silver from Spanish Peru made its way to the Middle Kingdom. The aristocratic houses of Europe, as well as the growing ranks of the bourgeoisie, had an insatiable demand for silk, tea and porcelain. But the Chinese had no use for European products, and so no reciprocal trade occurred. Instead, the goods of the vast Chinese market could only be unlocked with cold cash.
When I watch our politicians attempt to pillory China for its artificial currency devaluation, I wonder if the reasons for our trade imbalance are not deeper. It seems to me that China, which has undergone radical and traumatic changes over the past century-and-a-half, has nevertheless retained the same attitude towards foreign imports present since the Ming and Qing dynasties. That attitude, simply put, is this: we don’t really want your stuff.
The fact is, Western countries, as well as Japan, have little to offer the Chinese that the Chinese cannot make themselves. China’s domestic market is so vast, with its population of billions, that a Chinese company catering only to domestic demand can succeed and profit on the order of a multinational conducting global trade. For each product one can think of, the Chinese have a version that makes importing that thing unnecessary. “What use have I for a Sony HD television,” a Chinese person might ask him/herself, “when I can purchase a Changhong set for a fraction of the price?” Only those at the very top of China’s bottom-heavy economic pyramid, whose conspicuous consumption of foreign brands maintains their “face,” care to revel in the Sony icons that grace their shiny new sets.
Which is why the Chinese might never begin to open their wallets to American brands. I say might because there are important exceptions to the rule, most notably General Motor’s success in the Chinese market. I say might because I haven’t been to China in a few years, and don’t really have the time or money right now to go. And most importantly, I say might because getting China wrong is one of the most widely played sports in the Western world.