May 27, 2019

Is China mainly valued by American multinational businesses as a super-cheap production site for serving U.S. customers, or as a huge and potentially huge-er consumer market? The question has mattered decisively since the beginning of the nation’s controversial and dramatic trade expansion with China because of the impact on domestic U.S. jobs and production.

So it’s important to report that a new poll of the multinationals that operate in the People’s Republic strongly supports the views of trade policy critics (like me) who have charged that the nation’s pre-Trump approach to China’s economic rise has produced America Last results for the United States, and have urged a fundamentally new strategy.

If the multinationals were using China mainly to supply the U.S. market, as the critics have long insisted, then the trade and investment patterns that have emerged with China would inevitably be undercutting America’s economy. For their investment in the People’s Republic would be mainly replacing factories and similar facilities in the United States, and even exports to China would mainly be replacing shipments between plants within the United States.

If, however, these global giants (and the economists they employ to make their case to politicians, the press, and the public) were right in claiming that their activities were mainly focused on satisfying demand in China, and especially final demand, then the U.S. domestic economy would benefit. For their new Chinese customers would be supplementing their existing American customers, and overall markets for products Made in the USA would grow. (See here and here for arguments from multinationals-funded think tanks studies purporting to document that this win-win scenario has been the case for years.)

But a survey conducted by no less than the American Chamber of Commerce in China and by its Shanghai branch makes clear the great extent to which U.S.-owned businesses operating in China are oriented towards customers back home. One of the biggest hints? More (40 percent) of the 239 firms contacted said that (in the words of a summary) “the hike of U.S. tariffs announced on May 10 would have a strong negative impact on their business” than said that they would be hurt by a retaliatory Chinese increase in its duties (33 percent). Clearly, the American levies’ increase would damage those companies because of all that they produce in China for export to the United States. And this despite the robust growth of a Chinese consuming class that is said to be the main reason for concentrating on Chinese customer.

Two other big clues: Fully 35 percent of the companies responding said that “their main strategy for dealing with the tension was to restructure so their operations were more heavily ‘in China for China.’” In other words, many of their China operations are still structured to be “in China for somewhere else.” And 53 percent of the businesses reported that they faced no non-tariff retaliatory measures from Beijing since July, 2018 – when the first Trump China tariffs were announced. Why would they if much of their focus was exporting, and thereby helping China earn valuable foreign exchange revenue?

Nonetheless, the American Chamber survey did turn up two semi-surprises. First, only one of the companies responding complained that a curb on China’s forced technology transfer practices “was the most important outcome” for President Trump to achieve in any trade agreement. For decades, reports of this practice have been too numerous to list.

Second, 42 percent of the companies stated that “a return to the status quo before the tariffs was most important for them” – even though mounting corporate complaints about harassment from and discrimination by the Chinese government and its agents in the Chinese “business” sector are mains reason for strong (stated, anyway) bipartisan American support for ramping up the pressure on China. At the same time, this result could be yet another sign of how much U.S. corporate activity in China continues using the country mainly as an export platform.

Even the most charitable interpretation of this survey would conclude that American businesses simply have no coherent idea of what they want U.S. China trade diplomacy to produce. On the one hand, many of them plainly remain unhappy with the Chinese environment in which they operate. On the other, many plainly oppose the only American measures – tariffs – with any hope of improving this environment.

All of which tells me that, although there may be many grounds for criticizing President Trump’s trade war with China, opposition from an American business community that is at best utterly clueless and at worst hopelessly conflicted on the issues isn’t one of them.

Why Multinationals Should Still be Ignored on China, Industry TodayALAN TONELSON
Alan Tonelson, a columnist for IndustryToday, is founder of the RealityChek blog (, which covers manufacturing, trade, the economy, and national security. He has written for many leading publications on these subjects and is the author of The Race to the Bottom (Westview Press, 2000).

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