Chen Deming & China’s Future

In the latest of the slow shuffle of top jobs that takes place in the six months or so between a quintennial party congress and the next annual session of China’s legislature — the hires, fires and retires that signal both the tides of time and the shifting sands of power — Chen Deming has been announced as commerce minister and thus formally introduced to the world as someone who will become a familiar face to American, Japanese and European trade negotiators over the coming years.

Chen, 58, is from Shanghai and had been deputy head of the National Development and Reform Commission since June 2006, holding an energy policy brief. He was formerly governor of the coal-mining province of Shaanxi though his early career was spent in Jaingsu.

Chen is, of course, already known to many of those foreign trade officials and sat in as a minister apparent on recent high-level talks with both Japan and the U.S., where he made a good impression by all reports. Or at least he will be known to the career bureaucrats if not the revolving door of U.S. cabinet secretaries who serve at the whim of the incumbent president. The current U.S. commerce secretary, Carlos Gutierrez, will be gone after next November, as will most likely the Bush administration’s steadiest China hand, Treasury secretary Hank Paulson.

Twenty years ago some Americans worried about the lack of institutional memory on their side in bilateral negotiations with Japan. There are echoes of that concern with China today. These matter more now. The U.S. relationship with China is more complex than that with Japan 20 years ago, and while Japan was a rising economic power then, it was never realistically a political threat to the U.S.’ superpower status in the way that China potentially is.

In the end, economic forces, particularly globalization and financial markets liberalization, neutralized the power of Japan’s esteemed bureaucracy, bending it to their will rather than vice versa. The same will, I believe, prove true in China — and the early signs of that can be seen in the difficulty the center has in controlling so many aspects of economic policy at the local level.

At 58 Chen will be one of those with a ringside seat to that clash of undercurrents – to mangle a metaphor. How well he and his senior party colleague’s manage that transition, if indeed a state can get to a point where political centralism coexists with economic decentralization (“one party, two systems”?), will determine how smoothly China makes the transition to superpower and not just a supereconomy.


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Filed under China-U.S., Economy, Politics & Society

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