This winter, Maury and I completed another “bucket list” adventure, which included visits to China, Japan and South Korea. Two decades ago Maury and I spent a week in China, which then appeared to be a sleeping dragon. Now, that dragon appears to be breathing economic fire.
A week in China and conversation with informed sources does not make me any type of authority on China’s economy, but some things stand out. Whether the United States likes it or not, China is determined to be the world’s major economy. Our country must make sure that the current American isolationism stance does not catapult China into the world’s trade leadership position.
In 1996 we visited Hong Kong, long a British possession, to see this region before the communists took it over the following year. It was lively and economically prosperous; the American expectation was that it would be ruined by communist involvement. Today there is political conflict between old Hong Kong attitudes and Mainland Chinese, but the 40 square mile area with about 7.5 million people is thriving with construction and ultra modern skyscrapers.
Two decades ago, when we visited China’s capital, Beijing, it was in an early state of 20th Century growth and was dominated by bicycle traffic. Roadways were being constructed. Pollution from coal burning plants was high. It’s worse today; many Chinese wear protective masks, not just for illnesses, but also to cope with the frequent bad air quality. Now, traffic jams abound; one highway reportedly has 50 lanes of traffic.
This trip, we also visited Tianjin, a city of 12 million, about which we had no previous knowledge. It had traffic congestion and a majestic art museum. The most amazing part was its port area, about an hour from the city center.
The area has been identified as the Free Trade Zone of Tianjin, which The Wall Street Journal covered extensively in early March. It is immense and under development. Recently paved unused streets, vast numbers of new sparsely occupied high rises and shipping containers stacked like Legos abound. By the way, Lego has recently announced that its sales are now flat in the U.S. and so they will be concentrating on China. The port of Tianjin is part of China’s trade future.
The main thoroughfares of major Chinese cities are illuminating. It’s not the occasional McDonald’s that makes one wonder about this brand of communism, but the large numbers of truly upscale stores. Tiffany’s and world-renowned upscale clothing stores with sky-high prices are common. All sorts of vehicles are clogging the roads; BMWs and Mercedes are everywhere. China rules its people with an iron communistic fist, but it understands business and capitalism.
From a country that was building roads by hand in the 1990s to the city of Shanghai that now has about 30 million residents, a skyline of skyscrapers and boasts an elevated expressway that runs above the city for 135 miles, China is no longer a third world economy or one that is just producing inexpensive merchandise.
Our brief experience in China shows that our government needs to develop long-range, realistic economic trade policies. Writing in the Miami Herald, Andres Oppenheimer noted that, “Trump’s isolationism is pushing countries into China’s arms.” China is serious about becoming the world’s dominant economic power. America will suffer if it simply embraces isolationism and avoids mutually beneficial trade agreements.
[Diane W. Mufson is a regular contributor to the editorial page of the Huntington, WV Herald-Dispatch. This article first appeared in the H-D Thursday, April 6, 2017. We felt it was so interesting our readers around the world (even in China!) would enjoy it. Diane and her husband Maury live in Huntington, West Virginia. Diana is a retired psychologist.]