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'New China Playbook' has a different view than many Western policymakers do on China


The writer and scholar Keyu Jin has a foot in each of two worlds. One is China, and the other is the West.

KEYU JIN: I grew up in Beijing, but I chose to go to the U.S. for high school as a Chinese exchange student when I was 14. And I lived with an American family.

INSKEEP: And you ended up going to college in the United States, as well, right?

JIN: Yes, yes. That was my dream.

INSKEEP: She teaches now at the London School of Economics, and she has written a book about the economic development of her native country. "The New China Playbook" offers a different perspective than many Western policymakers do about China. In fact, she argues that Americans get a lot of things subtly wrong. Americans think about the overpowering bureaucracy of the Communist state, which is true. But she maintains the state apparatus has often been very smart economically. And when it's not, entrepreneurs often push it to change. American business leaders complain of unfair competition in China. Jin sees that differently, too.

JIN: There are lots of Western firms that have succeeded in all sectors, with the exception of the sensitive ones or the strategically important ones of the government, where there's restrictions on foreign investment. And there are losers, as well. If we take the automotive industry or the mobile phone industry, I'd say that in many of these at least consumer-oriented sectors, it's just about competition. Amazon didn't do so well, not because of discrimination but because Alibaba is very powerful, and it caters to the Chinese tastes. Same thing with eBay, which it drove out. Apple did super well, and it continues to thrive. Of course, there are information-related companies like Google and Facebook that has met with challenges, restrictions, outright bans, etc. And I'm not saying that there are no discriminations against foreign companies. But if we actually look at the data in China, the foreign companies actually get more subsidies than domestic companies.

INSKEEP: You write that Google chose not to comply with regulatory restrictions, and so their business has been severely restricted in China. Isn't it really, though, a clash of values? They weren't willing to accept Chinese censorship.

JIN: Absolutely. And the clash of values will continue. The thing that we have to accept is that even if there is economic convergence with globalization, there has not been so much convergence of values or systems, political systems, as we've seen. The Chinese are still Chinese after they joined the WTO. The Chinese foreign students who have traveled abroad - ultimately, most of them decide to come back and return home and bring their knowledge or carry out their innovation to create the relevant lifestyles in China. It's still local. The culture is local. And hence, this is where our clashes come from.

INSKEEP: Do you think China is certain to become the world's largest economy in the next decade or so?

JIN: I don't know if this is a very meaningful concept because it could well be the largest economy simply because of its size, because of 1.3 billion people, not because it's rich. There's a fundamental difference between the two. I think if China rose 1.5% faster than the U.S., then almost certainly, in 10, 15 years, the Chinese economy will be the largest in the world. But is it going to be rich as the U.S.? Absolutely not. Is it going to have the most cutting-edge technologies, the greatest military power? None of this is measured by the size of the Chinese economy.

INSKEEP: You write something else that I hadn't thought about in quite this way before. One reason you say that China's economy has grown so much over the past few decades is that the individual worker is way more productive. Somebody who was working in a farm years ago is now working in a factory and is just producing more wealth. Can China keep increasing people's productivity in the future?

JIN: This kind of growth is over. That defined the previous three decades of growth of moving people from rural areas to urban areas, equipping them with good tools and machines and capital. And they have become very productive. And because of that, they have been able to produce cheap goods for the whole world and become the factory of the world. But that kind of growth has come to an end. So I think China has entered a much more difficult economic growth phase.

But that doesn't mean that there will be an economic collapse. It doesn't mean that China will be the Japan of the 1990s, doesn't mean that China will have a lost decade. It's about coming to terms with slower but hopefully higher-quality growth that's driven by sustainably high productivity and innovation. And that, of course, is a big if. But I'm not as pessimistic as many other observers are - that China's economy is doomed, that it won't be able to realize that potential, maybe not even become the biggest economy in the world.

INSKEEP: What, if anything, is the United States getting wrong in its policy approach to China in the last few years?

JIN: I think that it's important to separate what are really national security concerns from what could be a great, competitive collaboration model. You know, companies like Apple have really thrived thanks to the Chinese market. And China have thrived thanks to having Apple kind of products. If the world is talking about really embarking on a green transition, I just cannot imagine the lack of collaboration between these two largest economies, especially as China has become the leader of renewable technologies. The policies, the restrictions on technology make sure that it's very narrowly focused, that it won't affect a huge swath of the economy. It would be very sad to decouple, technologically speaking, because it would hurt both countries and the world. And we're really talking about trillions of dollars at stake, which can do so much.

INSKEEP: The Biden administration at least talks the way that you do. They will say, we want to block off national security dangers but still compete in other areas and have a relationship. Are they getting the balance right or wrong?

JIN: Well, is TikTok really a national security concern? Is reducing the number of visas granted to Chinese students wanting to study STEM in the U.S. really about national security concerns? Is watching Chinese professors contribute to the U.S. science and technology a national security concern, including reduced effort to collaborate between universities? I think now the danger is that this is so widespread, and the sentiment is that, you know, China is an adversary. It's something that's instilled in the younger generation - is also very dangerous. I think if they can be politically opposite, economically competitive and global public goods collaborative, this would be already a big step forward. And we want to think about small victories, not big wins but small victories, when we think about the two nations.

INSKEEP: Keyu Jin is the author of "The New China Playbook: Beyond Socialism And Capitalism." Thanks so much.

JIN: Thank you so much, Steve.