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Trump’s Imaginary Enemy

SHANGHAI – Last month, China commemorated the 20th anniversary of the death of Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of the economic reform and opening up that catapulted the country to the top rungs of the global economic ladder. The anniversary comes at a time when economic openness is under threat, as the United States is now being led by a president who believes that the way to “make America great again” is to close it off from the world.

In particular, Donald Trump’s administration is posturing for a stricter approach to China, which he claims has been “raping” the US with its trade policies, including by keeping the renminbi’s value artificially low. Whatever concrete steps Trump takes, it seems clear that US policy will be economically tougher on China in the coming years, potentially even triggering a trade war. But, as a closer look at China’s financial policy stance shows, China is not America’s foe.

Just a few months ago, China was confronted with the urgent challenge of preventing the continued depreciation of the renminbi and cooling down an overheating real-estate market. This would be no easy feat, not least because the authorities’ efforts to stem the renminbi’s decline were rapidly shrinking China’s foreign-exchange reserves.

The situation was so grim that some international investors and economists suggested that the government would have to give up on managing housing prices and focus, instead, on propping up the exchange rate, as Japan, Russia, and South Asian economies had done. China, they argued, could not allow its hard-earned foreign-exchange reserves to slip away.