Making Room for China

CAMBRIDGE – China’s undervalued currency and huge trade surplus pose great risks to the world economy. They threaten a major protectionist backlash in the United States and Europe; and they undermine the recovery in developing and emerging markets. Left unchecked, they will generate growing acrimony between China and other countries. But the solution is not nearly as simple as some pundits make it out to be.

Listen to what comes out of Washington and Brussels, or read the financial press, and you would think you were witnessing a straightforward morality play. It is in China’s own interests, these officials and commentators say, to let the renminbi appreciate. After all, the Chinese economy can no longer rely on external demand and exports to sustain its remarkable growth, and Chinese consumers, who are still poor on average, deserve a break and should be encouraged to spend rather than save.

This story casts China’s policymakers in the role of evil and misguided currency manipulators, who, inexplicably, choose to harm not only the rest of the world, but their own society as well. In fact, an appreciating renminbi would likely deal a serious blow to China’s growth, which essentially relies on a simple, time-tested recipe: encourage industrialization. Currency undervaluation is currently the Chinese government’s main instrument for subsidizing manufacturing and other tradable sectors, and therefore promoting growth through structural change.

Before it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, China had a wider range of policy instruments for achieving this end. It could promote its industries through high tariffs, explicit subsidies, domestic content requirements on foreign firms, investment incentives, and many other forms of industrial policy. But WTO membership has made it difficult, if not impossible, to resort to these traditional forms of industrial support. China’s tariffs declined precipitously in the late 1990’s, and many of the other inducements were also phased out. Currency undervaluation has become a substitute.