The China Story You Should Pay Attention to, and the One You Should Ignore

Skip past anything that talks about a coming dawn of the Chinese Century. Go straight to stories on the complications of China in the here-and-now.
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The New Number 1? Actually, no. ( Wikimedia commons )

First, the China stories you should skip. Using up my once-per-lifetime pass for such activity, I am about to show a screenshot of a tweet that I myself put out two days ago. 

The backstory here is the newly released result of a big, years-long, international (UN) effort to calculate price levels around the worldand thus to improve the "Purchasing Power Parity" figures for comparing spending power in different countries. Simplest example: a few years ago, 1 U.S. dollar was officially worth about 8 Chinese yuan renminbi, or RMB. That rate is not set on an open market like, say, dollar-euro rates, but instead is carefully "managed" by the Chinese government. But if average prices in China were only half as high as in the U.S., then on a PPP basis the Chinese economy would be twice as large as the official exchange rate made it seem, since the RMB would go twice as far in buying things.

The newest results show (to oversimplify) that effective Chinese prices have been even lower than assumed, and therefore the purchasing power of Chinese RMB has been even greater. After these adjustments, the overall Chinese economy is deemed to be about 20 percent larger than previously believedand therefore either it already has, or it very soon will, "overtake" the United States to become, in PPP terms, the world's biggest economy.

Thus silly (over)reactions like this, from The Economist:

Just for the record, my initials are the same, but the "J.M.F." listed as one of the authors is not me. And this from Bloomberg View:

Headlines and reactions like these are ridiculous, as I'm sure both publications are aware and as each of the articles concedes further down in the stories. Compared with one week ago, when China's economy was much "smaller" than America's, nothing economic has changed in either China or the United States. With these new figures, we may have a closer approximation of how circumstances for China's recently urbanized hundreds-of-millions compare with others around the globe. But the differences not captured by such figuresfreedom to or restrictions on travel within a country, who can and cannot go to school, the still-unfolding enormous effects of mass urbanization, the nature and availability of health-care systems, above all the country's environmental catastropheare also part of any serious attempt to understand how "rich" or "poor" China is. 

Rather than belabor that point, let me turn you to an excellent ongoing discussion at ChinaFilewhose reaction could not be more different from agog headlines about a new Chinese Century. For instance, this  installment from Arthur Kroeber, who has been on-scene in China for many years and understands how little such statistics signify:

...this is a “who cares?” moment. It has been obvious for quite some time that China would soon overtake the U.S. in sheer economic size. If one doesn’t accept the current PPP conversion rate then just wait five or ten years and China will be bigger at market exchange rates. But basically, all that this shift tells us is that China has way more people than the U.S.— 4.2 times as many, to be exact. So, as soon as China stopped being fantastically poorer (per capita) than the U.S., and became simply a lot poorer, its total economy surpassed that of the U.S. (And still lags that of the European Union, which is arguably the world’s biggest economy, if one takes economic integration rather than political boundaries as the criterion.) Big deal....

Fundamentally Damien [Ma] is right that this “who’s on top?” discussion misses all that is truly interesting, namely how China and other countries manage social tensions, income distribution and other problems arising from high speed economic growth. Because of its sheer bulk, China is indeed wealthy and poor at the same time, and the responses to that paradox are a far more fascinating target of study than the mere size of the economy.

There is a lot more nuance in that ChinaFile discussion, which I highly recommend. As a handy guide the next time you see some pie-eyed headline about the PPP:

  • As a matter of individual or family welfare, this is a reminder of how much poorer the average Chinese person remains than the average North American or European.
  • Also on the individual or family basis, the average Chinese person is actually further behind than these figures suggest, because (as Arthur Kroeber points out) so much less of the nation's total output goes to individual consumption relative to Europe or North America, and so much more to infrastructure or export.
  • Still for individuals and families, if there were any PPP-style adjustment for environmental costsepidemic deaths especially in Northern China from air pollution, the emergence of "cancer villages," increased rates of birth defects, destruction of fisheries and arable landChina's wealth would be much more heavily discounted than that of other large economies.
  • And if we're considering the national scale, as implied by loose talk of the Chinese Century, then the largest measures of national influence and potential come into play. From universities to global corporations to "soft power" to, of course, the military. No sane person contends that we are anywhere close to the "Chinese Century" in this senseas Arthur Kroeber and others say in today's discussion, and as I argued at length in China Airborne.  
  • Plus the ongoing mystery of which statistics out of China can and cannot be believed, and when and why.

China is a big, fascinating, fast-moving society that I learn from practically every day, whose continuing rise has done much more good than harm, and that I do my best to interest outsiders in. But Economist and Bloombergcome on.


Next, a China story you should read. Over the months I've written about allegations that the Bloomberg journalistic empire has defanged its coverage of China (especially corruption stories), to avoid jeopardizing its terminal-and-data business there. Some previous items here, here, here

No one at Bloomberg has ever agreed to respond on the record to these contentions. The only official reaction I have ever received, via spokesman Ty Trippet (with whom I've talked before or after each installment and again just now), is that the company "has no comment." Over the months I have heard from a very large number of current and former Bloomberg employees, most of whom have been very concerned that I not identify them, their geographical locations, or their exact roles in any traceable way.

Now Howard French—a veteran international correspondent, long with the NYT and now at Columbia Journalism School, my friend and colleague first in Japan and then in China, author of an Atlantic article on and now a great new book about China in Africa—has a much fuller account of the Bloomberg-and-China story in the CJR. It is definitely worth reading. 

At the end of his story, French does get a reaction beyond "no comment" from Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg's editor in chief and a man whom French reports to be in the middle of the China-coverage controversies:

Several days after our initial email exchange, Winkler, the editor in chief, wrote back to provide his sole quote for this account. “I’m proud of our reporting and our work speaks for itself,” it read. 

Asked via email if that applied to the now apparently dead second investigative take on high-level corruption in China, Winkler replied, “The statement covers our work.” 

Here is the problem Bloomberg is creating for itself by refusing to engage in discussion of this issue. The company is full of first-rate reporters and editors, including a lot of people who are my long-time friends. It is one of the great news organizations of the era. In China as everywhere else it has very good people doing very good work. 

But: over a long period now, named individuals have made specific and very serious allegations about the organization's trustworthiness on a crucially important ongoing story of these times. Think for a moment of any other institution facing comparably specific questions about its decisions and values: a politician about conflicts of interest, a company about product recalls, a university about controversies over athletics or sexual assault, a tech company about protecting privacy or handling government pressures. In any of these situations, Bloomberg's tough reporters would be among the first pushing for specific answers, beyond "no comment" or "our work speaks for itself."

It is long past time for someone senior at Bloombergthe former mayor himself, editor-in-chief Winkler, chairman Peter Grauer, or anyone else in a position to speak for the firmto do what Bloomberg reporters would expect of other institutions, and accept questions and give answers about the allegations that have mounted up. 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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