“Be Nice to the Countries That Lend You Money”

In his first interview since the world financial crisis, Gao Xiqing, the man who oversees $200 billion of China’s $2 trillion in dollar holdings, explains why he’s betting against the dollar, praises American pragmatism, and wonders about enormous Wall Street paychecks. And he has a friendly piece of advice:

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With so much of China’s money at stake, did U.S. officials consult the Chinese about the rescue plan?

Not directly. We were talking to people there, and they were hoping that we would be supportive by not pulling out our money. We know that by pulling out money, we’re not serving anyone’s good. Including ourselves. [This is the famous modern “balance of financial terror.” If Chinese officials started pulling assets out of the U.S. and touched off a run on the dollar, their vast remaining dollar holdings would plummet in value.] So we’re trying to help, at least by not aggravating the problem.

But I think at the end of the day, the American government needs to talk with people and say: “Why don’t we get together and think about this? If China has $2 trillion, Japan has almost $2 trillion, and Russia has some, and all the others, then—let’s throw away the ideological differences and think about what’s good for everyone.” We can get all the relevant people together and think up what people are calling a second Bretton Woods system, like the first Bretton Woods convention did.

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On what might make the Chinese government start taking its dollars out of America (I began the question by saying that China would hurt itself by pulling out dollar assets—at which he interjected, “in the short term”—and then asked about the long-term view):

Today when we look at all the markets, the U.S. still is probably the most viable, the most predictable. I was trained as a lawyer, and predictability is always very important for me.

We have a PR department, which collects all the comments about us, from Chinese newspapers and the Web. Every night, I try to pick a time when I’m in a relatively good mood to read it, because most of the comments are very critical of us. Recently we increased our holdings in Blackstone a little bit. Now we’re increasing a little bit our holdings in Morgan Stanley, so as not to be diluted by the Japanese. People here hate it. They come out and say, “Why the hell are you trying to save those people? You are the representative of the poor people eating porridge, and you’re saving people eating shark fins!” It’s always that sort of thing.

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And how should Americans feel about the growing Chinese presence in their economy? Isn’t it natural for them to worry that China will keep increasing its stake in American debt and assets—or that China won’t, essentially cutting America off?

I can understand why Americans might feel that way. But, talking with my lawyer head once again, it’s not relevant to discuss how Americans “should” think. We should discuss how Americans might think.

This concern is not really about China itself. It could be any country. It could be Japan, or Germany. This generation of Americans is so used to your supremacy. Your being treated nicely by everyone. It hurts to think, Okay, now we have to be on equal footing to other people. “On equal footing” would necessarily mean that sometimes you have to stoop to appear to be humble to other people.

And you can’t think as a soldier. You put yourself at the enemy end of everyone. I grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when people really treated other people like enemies. I grew up in an environment where our friends, our relatives, people I called Uncle or Auntie, could turn around and put a nasty face to me as a small child. One time, Vladimir Lenin told Gorky, after reading Gorky’s autobiography, “Oh my god! You could have become a very nasty person!” Those are exactly the words one of my dear professors told me after hearing what I went through.

But over the years, I believe I learned to be humble. To treat other people nicely. I learned that, from a social point of view, no matter how lowly statured a person you are talking to, as a person, they are the same human being as you are. You have to respect them. You have to apologize if you inadvertently hurt them. And often you have to go out of your way to be nice to them, because they will not like you simply because of the difference in social structure.

Americans are not sensitive in that regard. I mean, as a whole. The simple truth today is that your economy is built on the global economy. And it’s built on the support, the gratuitous support, of a lot of countries. So why don’t you come over and … I won’t say kowtow [with a laugh], but at least, be nice to the countries that lend you money.

Talk to the Chinese! Talk to the Middle Easterners! And pull your troops back! Take the troops back, demobilize many of the troops, so that you can save some money rather than spending $2 billion every day on them. And then tell your people that you need to save, and come out with a long-term, sustainable financial policy.

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Although Gao has frequently mentioned Chairman Mao’s maxim—“Go with the Republicans. They’re predictable!”—he obviously was hoping for a “change” agenda under the Democrats:

The current conditions can’t go on. It is time for the new government, under Obama or even McCain, to really tell people: “Look, this is wartime, this is about the survival of our nation. It’s not about our supremacy in the world. Let’s not even talk about that any more. Let’s get down to the very basics of our livelihood.”

I have great admiration of American people. Creative, hard-working, trusting, and freedom-loving. But you have to have someone to tell you the truth. And then, start realizing it. And if you do it, just like what you did in the Second World War, then you’ll be great again!

If that happens, then of course—American power would still be there for at least as long as I am living. But many people are betting on the other side.

James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent; his blog is at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.
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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.

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