The current Trump trade war with China and the fact that The Shanghai Composite Index is off roughly 24% for the year has placed a lot of the recent news focus on China. However, understanding the Chinese takes much deeper digging into the Chinese mindset as opposed to just looking at current economic numbers. The Trump administration strategy towards China may produce some short term benefits in terms of public support but the Chinese are working on a much longer timeline with which to accomplish their goals.
The best way to understand China is to be there and speak with those with whom we have business relationships, which is exactly how we gained the following insights.
In order to get to where China is today, they required expertise that they didn’t originally have. According to Professor Paul Gillis, a former head of PwC in China turned academic at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, and now the pre-eminent foreign analyst in China’s accounting industry, the then big eight western accounting firms clearly saw the opportunity developing in China back in the 1980s.
“They began building up representative offices to advise foreign firms entering China, at first often working out of hotels. By 1992, they had won the right to audit, working with Chinese partners, and were helping to develop China’s accounting standards. They pulled in all manner of outside experts to help them understand the country.”
The domination of Chinese accounting by four foreign multinationals soon became a source of annoyance in the official halls of Beijing. Paul Gillis wrote that by 2006, Ding Pingzhun, director-general of the government-aligned Chinese Institute of CPAs (CICPA), spoke of the Big Four as firms that “lord themselves arrogantly across China”.
These firms indirectly and or directly have under their tutorship approximately 60% of the Corporate sector in China. Because of this China knows that the US is intimately familiar with China’s business internal operations (shadow banking and corruption) and thinks they may be using this knowledge to form policy to secretly undermine them and weaken them.
For this reason, China believes that the US has been planning this attack using tariffs since 2000 from the Republican administrations. The expected George W. Bush to implement tariffs during his Presidential administration, however, the attack on New York on 9/11 most likely derailed the initial opportunity. The 2008 crash most likely took away the second opportunity for Bush to apply any meaningful tariffs against China. By the time Trump came along and implimented this strategy the Chinese were not surprised as they had been expecting such a move for some time.
The Chinese understand the recent US moves to reduce corporate taxes in order to repatriate money offshore and induce these companies to return their manufacturing bases back to the US. The Chinese also realise that an agreement between North Korea and South Korea (with the US brokering) could create a much cheaper labor base. The threat is that this could take away a lot of labour intensive industries from China.
They believe that the tariff program was put in place to try and weaken or slowdown China’s growth in manufacturing and thus their world influence. It is not a secret that China has been going after markets in the Middle East, Africa and Central America spreading their influence in order to breakaway from any stranglehold that the US may currently have on them. In addition, to facilitate this in the future China has taken on the massive development of the One Belt, One Road initiative which if successful will change the face of international trade.
China is playing on a much longer timeline so they are prepared for some pain and suffering. In China, Xi has now solidified his position for life. China knows that the US changes party power every 4 years and is betting that the democrats get back in and reverse the Trump plan.
In order to deal with the Chinese one has to understand some important character traits.
Of all the idiosyncrasies of Chinese culture, the concept of “Face” is perhaps most difficult for Westerns to fully grasp. And because “saving face” is such a strong motivating force in China, it’s also one of the most important concepts in understanding the Chinese Mind. It goes back centuries and appears in many Chinese sayings and proverbs.
“Men can’t live without face, trees can’t live without bark.”
(ren hou lian, shu hou pi)
“A family’s ugliness (misfortune) should never be publicly aired”
(jai chou bu ke wai yang)
A traditional insult is to say that someone “has no face”.
(mei you mianzi)
Similarly, one of the worst things is to “lose face”.
The management of “Face” goes much deeper than just impression management (or “protecting and enhancing your ego”) in the Western sense. Although nobody, regardless of culture, wants to look bad or have their ego bruised, the Chinese concept goes beyond the narrow Western concept of face (and is perhaps closer to the Arab concept of “honour”).
While an American businessperson might be respected back home for his frankness and being a “straight-shooter,” he would likely be viewed in China as uncultured, overbearing, and rude. President Trump’s remarks against the Chinese on the world stage do not, by any means, go unnoticed by the Chinese public.
During Hu Jintao’s 2006 visit to the US, there were a large number of missteps on behalf of the Bush administration that were believed to be an intentional campaign to make China lose face on the international stage. If this was truly the case, the Chinese have not forgotten.
The current trade war should be looked at as an economic battle that could drag on for some time and not as a short term tactic on behalf of the Trump administration. They have opened up Pandora’s box. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, the tough tone on behalf of the US effectively ties Xi’s hands.
“James Zimmerman, former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China stated,
“Getting the Chinese to the bargaining table should be all about face-saving — not a chest-thumping exercise, Xi has no choice but to stand firm and stand tall.”
Trump’s bravado approach to try to win concessions from Beijing has provoked a public fury that could ultimately derail his efforts. Although the Trump administration believes that a trade war can be won and that they are in a position to win against China, it should be perfectly clear that today’s China is a much stronger adversary on the economic, military and cyber front, than they ever were. If their back is against the wall it will only be a matter of time before “Xi hits the fan.”