Getting Globalization Right: China Marches to its Own Beat

Foreigners are welcome if they foster domestic capabilities

Today in collaboration with Americas Quarterly, we’re publishing the last of a series of three articles on globalisation and the fight against poverty by Dani Rodrik, Professor of International Political Economy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.  You can read a print version in AQ’s Spring 2012 edition on social inclusion (online version here) and the first article in the series here

China’s experience offers compelling evidence that globalization can be a great boon for poor nations. Yet it also presents the strongest argument against the reigning orthodoxy in globalization, which emphasizes financial globalization and deep integration through the World Trade Organization (WTO). China’s ability to shield itself from the global economy proved critical to its efforts to build a modern industrial base, which would in turn be leveraged through world markets.

Since 1978, income per capita in China has grown at an average rate of 8.3 percent per annum—a rate that implies a doubling of incomes every nine years. Thanks to this rapid economic growth, between 1981 and 2008 the poverty rate in China (the percent of the population below the $1.25-a-day poverty line) fell from 84 percent to 13 percent, much of it from reducing rural poverty. This meant a whopping 662 million fewer Chinese in extreme poverty, a number that accounts for virtually the entire drop in global poverty over the same period.

During the same period, China transformed itself from near autarky to the most feared competitor on world markets. That this happened in a country with a complete lack of private property rights (until recently) and run by the Communist Party only deepens the mystery.

China’s big break came when Deng Xiaoping and other post-Mao leaders decided to trust markets instead of central planning. But their real genius lay in their recognition that the market-supporting institutions they built, most of which were sorely lacking at the time, would have to possess distinctly Chinese characteristics.

China’s economy was predominantly rural in 1978. A Western-trained economist would have recommended abolishing central planning and removing all price controls. Yet without a central plan urban workers would have been deprived of their cheap rations and the government of an important source of revenue, resulting in masses of disgruntled workers in the cities and the risk of hyperinflation.

The Chinese solution to this conundrum was to graft a market system on top of the plan.

Communes were abolished and family farming restored, but land remained state property. Obligatory grain deliveries at controlled prices were kept in place, but once farmers had fulfilled their state quota they were now free to sell their surplus at market-determined prices. This dual-track regime gave farmers market-based incentives and yet did not deprive the state of revenue nor deprive urban workers of cheap food.  Agricultural productivity rose sharply, setting off the first phase of China’s post-1978 growth.

Another challenge was how to provide a semblance of property rights when the state remained the ultimate owner of all property. Privatization would have been the conventional route, but it was ruled out by the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology.

Once again, an innovation came to the rescue. Township and village enterprises (TVEs) proved remarkably adept at stimulating domestic private investment. They were owned not by private entities or the central government, but by local governments (townships or villages). TVEs produced virtually the full gamut of products, everything from consumer goods to capital goods, and spearheaded Chinese economic growth from the mid-1980s until the mid-1990s. The key to the success of TVEs was the self-interest of local governments, which would reap substantial income from their equity stake in the enterprises.

China’s strategy to open its economy to the world also diverged from received theory. The Chinese leadership resisted the conventional advice to remove trade barriers. Such an action would have forced many state enterprises to close without doing much to stimulate new investments in industrial activities. Employment and economic growth would have suffered, threatening social stability.

The Chinese decided to experiment with alternative mechanisms that would not create too much pressure on existing industrial structures. While state trading monopolies were dismantled relatively early (starting in the late 1970s), what took their place was a complex and highly restrictive set of tariffs, nontariff barriers and licenses restricting imports. These were not substantially relaxed until the early 1990s.

In particular, China relied on Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to generate exports and attract foreign investment. Enterprises in these zones operated under different rules than those that applied in the rest of the country; they had access to better infrastructure and could import inputs duty free. The SEZs generated incentives for export-oriented investments without pulling the rug out from under state enterprises.

What fueled China’s growth, along with these institutional innovations, was a dramatic productive transformation.

The Chinese economy latched on to advanced, high-productivity products that no one would expect a poor, labor-abundant country to produce, let alone export. By the end of the 1990s, China’s export portfolio resembled that of a country with an income-per-capita level at least three times higher than China’s.

Foreign investors played a key role in the evolution of China’s industries. They created the most productive firms, introduced new technology to the economy, and became the drivers of the export boom. The SEZs, where foreign producers could operate with good infrastructure and with a minimum of hassles, deserve considerable credit.

But if China welcomed foreign companies, it always did so with the objective of fostering domestic capabilities. It used a number of policies to ensure that technology transfer would take place and that strong domestic players would emerge. Early on, they relied predominantly on state-owned national champions. Later, the government used a variety of incentives and disincentives to foster joint ventures with domestic firms (as in mobile phones and computers) and expand local content (as in autos). Cities and provinces were given substantial freedoms to fashion their own policies of stimulation and support, which led to the creation of industrial clusters in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, and elsewhere.

Many of these early policies would have run afoul of WTO rules that ban export subsidies and prohibit discrimination in favor of domestic firms—if China had been a member of the organization. Chinese policy makers were not constrained by any external rules in their conduct of trade and industrial policies and could act freely to promote industrialization.

By the time China did join the WTO, in 2001, it had created a strong industrial base, much of which did not need protection or nurturing. China substantially reduced its tariffs in preparation for WTO membership, bringing them down from the high levels of the early 1990s (averaging around 40 percent) to single digits in 2001. Many other industrial policies were also phased out.

However, China was not yet ready to let the push and pull of global markets determine the fate of its industries. It began to rely increasingly on a competitive exchange rate to effectively subsidize these industries. By intervening in currency markets and keeping short-term capital flows out, the government prevented its currency (renminbi) from appreciating, which would have been the natural consequence of China’s rapid economic growth.

Explicit industrial policies gave way to an implicit industrial policy conducted by way of currency policy.

Asia’s economic experience violates stereotypes and yet offers something for everyone. In effect, it acts as a reflecting pool for the biases of the observer. If you think unleashing markets is the best way to foster economic development, you will find plenty of evidence for that. If you think markets need the firm, commanding hand of the government, well, there is much evidence for that too.

Globalization as an engine for growth? East Asian countries are a case in point. Globalization needs to be tamed? Ditto. However, if you leave aside these stale arguments and listen to the real message that emanates from the success of the region, you find that what works is a combination of states and markets. Globalization is a tremendously positive force, but only if you are able to domesticate it to work for you rather than against you.

You become what you produce. That is the inevitable fate of nations. Specialize in commodities and raw materials, and you will get stuck in the periphery of the world economy. You will remain hostage to fluctuations in world prices and suffer under the rule of a small group of domestic elites.

If you can push your way into manufactured and other modern tradable products, you may pave a path toward convergence with the world’s rich countries. You will have greater ability to withstand swings in world markets, and you will acquire the broad based, representative institutions that a growing middle class demands, instead of the repressive ones that elites need to hide behind.

Globalization accentuates the dilemma because it makes it easier for countries to fall into the commodities trap.

The international division of labor makes it possible for you to produce little else besides commodities, if that is what you choose to do. At the same time, globalization greatly increases the rewards of the alternative strategy, as the experiences of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China amply show.

Sustained poverty reduction requires economic growth. A government committed to economic diversification and capable of energizing its private sector can spur growth rates that would have been unthinkable in a world untouched by globalization. The trick is to leverage globalization through a domestic process of productive transformation and capacity-building.

Useful links

This series is adapted from Dani Rodrik’s The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy published by Norton

Americas Society – Council of the Americas

OECD work on China

Perspectives on global development (publications from the OECD Development Centre)

Natural Resources and Pro-Poor Growth: The Economics and Politics

OECD work on poverty reduction and social development

OECD work on the benefits of trade liberalisation