January 25, 2012 1 Comment
By NYT ADAM DAVIDSON Published: January 25, 2012
The first time I visited China, in 2005, an American businessman living there told me that the country was so huge and was changing so fast that everything you heard about it was true, and so was the opposite. That still seems to be the case. China is the fastest-growing consumer market in the world, and American companies have made billions there. At the same time, Chinese consumers aren’t spending nearly as much as American companies had hoped. China has simultaneously become the greatest boon and the biggest disappointment.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2000, the United States forged its current economic relationship with China by permanently granting it most-favored-nation trade status and, eventually, helping the country enter the World Trade Organization. The unspoken deal, though, went something like this: China could make a lot of cheap goods, which would benefit U.S. consumers, even if it cost the country countless low-end manufacturing jobs. And rather than, say, fight for an extra bit of market share in Chicago, American multinationals could offset any losses because of competition by entering a country with more than a billion people — including the fastest-growing middle class in history — just about to buy their first refrigerators, TVs and cars. It was as if the United States added a magical 51st state, one that was bigger and grew faster than all the others. We would all be better off.
More than a decade later, many are waiting for the payoff. Certainly, lots of American companies have made money, but many actual workers have paid a real price. What went wrong? In part, American businesses assumed that a wealthier China would look like, well, America, says Paul French, a longtime Shanghai-based analyst with Access Asia-Mintel. He notes that Chinese consumers have spent far less than expected, and the money they do spend is less likely to be spent on American goods. Read more of this post