Category Archives: China-U.S.

Yuan Again Said To Be In Balance With U.S. Dollar

At the end of a fraught week for China-U.S. relations on the diplomatic front, state media aren’t letting the economic side of the relationship get away scot free. The People’s Daily says that the yuan is in equilibrium with the dollar, and may even be too high (here via Reuters). The article, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the leading think tank, follows U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner saying during the strategic dialogue talks this week that the currency should move higher against the greenback to allow for more flexible policy. The yuan has risen by almost a third against the dollar since the peg between the two was broken in 2005.

This is not the first time that Beijing has put forward the proposition that the yuan is now at a reasonable exchange rate against the dollar. Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the People’s Bank of China, said as much earlier this week at a press conference during the talks, as did a Bank of China report in late March. None of that is likely to mollify American critics of China’s exchange-rate regime. Yet we are relieved, in one sense, to see the China-U.S. relationship returning to familiar ground.

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Moving On

Not very, is the answer to the question we posed about the stickiness of the initial deal between Beijing and Washington over the activist Chen Guangcheng. The deal’s second incarnation, now seemingly in the making, will let Chen go to the U.S. to study law, accompanied by his family. There, if history is prologue, he will fade into anonymity.

Beijing has in the past been ready to let dissidents and activists leave the country, if they go quietly. Chen’s flight from illegal house arrest by provincial officials in Shandong to the refuge of the U.S. embassy in Beijing and then his change of mind about staying in the country has brought more international attention to his case than Beijing is comfortable with. That has raised the hackles of interference in domestic affairs. But Chen is not of great importance to central government in the greater scheme of things, and certainly of lesser importance than he has become outside the country, particularly to those in the U.S. who see his case providing political capital in an election year. Beijing just wants the matter done with, so it can get on with dealing with its bigger problems.

It has made the point that if Chen is to go into exile, it will be on Beijing’s terms, not Washington’s. That sets a certain deterrent to would-be copycats. This has hardly been a high point in the China-U.S. relationship, even as it has simultaneously highlighted the fragility and importance of that relationship. History, we suspect, will ultimately judge the Chen affair as no more than a footnote in the development of the relationship and of the rule of law in China.

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Trust But Verify

How fast is the fast deal struck between China and the U.S. over the departure of Chen Guangcheng from the U.S. embassy in Beijing? The are few precedents concerning previous visitors to American diplomatic outposts who have ‘left of their own volition’. The most recent one, Wang Lijun, disgraced Bo Xilai’s former police chief in Chongqing, is hardly a happy one. The circumstances surrounding Chen’s case are much different, though. For one, for all Chen’s international fame, he is little known inside China outside activist circles. His human rights activities, notably his exposure of forced abortions in Linyi in Shandong, challenged local rather than national politicians. His imprisonment and subsequent house arrest were prosecuted locally not nationally. He has not made any political demands on Beijing, beyond calling on it to investigate his treatment at the hands of local officials.

Chen’s flight to the U.S. embassy, where he had taken refuge for six days, was nonetheless an embarrassment and inconvenience to central government, especially coming as it did against the backdrop of the Bo affair and the always heightened security concerns of a leadership transition, and immediately ahead of a visit by the U.S. secretaries of state and Treasury, Hilary Clinton and Timothy Geithner. The later made it another and unasked-for test of the China-U.S. relationship. The foreign ministry was tart in its first public comment on the affair, demanding an apology from the Americans for interfering in domestic affairs. That despite the part the ministry would have played in the rapid diplomatic diffusing of the case. The Americans have issued no apology, saying just that they consider Chen’s an exceptional case. A pro-forma response to a perfunctory protest. Both sides save face.

Chen’s wish to stay in China rather than go in to exile made it easier to settle this incident quickly. What remains unclear is how credible are the guarantees the authorities have given to both Chen and the Americans that the activist can live freely with his family and attend law school (he is a self-trained lawyer) away from Shandong. U.S. ambassador Gary Locke publicly accompanied Chen from the embassy to Chaoyang Hospital, where Chen was to be reunited with his family and receive further treatment for a foot injury sustained during his escape from Linyi. It was a clear attempt to attract a domestic spotlight on Chen.

Both sides will keep a watchful eye on him. That is a considerably easier task for Chinese authorities than American diplomats. For as long as Chen keeps his head down and doesn’t become a national figure, there is no reason to believe that he won’t be left as alone as any other Chinese citizen, and will be as free to be as politically active in future as the circumstances at the time allow. But in the words of the old Russian proverb beloved of both Lenin and Ronald Reagan, trust but verify.

Update: The deal appears to be going pear-shaped already. U.S. press reports quote Chen saying he now wants to leave the country. He fears for the safety of his family, and that he only left the refuge of the U.S. embassy in the face of threats that his wife and children would forcibly returned to Shandong and beaten.

Beyond the human tragedy, if this is true, it would be a blow to the U.S.’s standing in China and in particular to that of the Obama administration at home and abroad.

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The Chen Case: A Inconvenient Test Of China-U.S. Relations

The flight of Chen Guangcheng from house arrest in Shandong to the refuge of the American embassy in Beijing comes at a highly inconvenient time for Sino-U.S. relations. U.S. Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, and her counterpart at the U.S. Treasury, Timothy Geithner, are due in Beijing this week for what were routine bilateral talks. These will now be overshadowed by what is an embarrassment to Chinese authorities and a problem U.S. diplomats could do with out given all the other glowing embers of contention between the two countries. Clinton has advanced the dispatch of some of her sherpas in an effort to defuse the situation before she arrives. Her assistant secretary of state, Kurt Campbell, is already in Beijing, several days ahead of his planned arrival.

Both governments are staying mum on Chen’s case. The Americans haven’t officially acknowledged Chen is sheltering in their embassy. China’s foreign ministry spokesman says they have no information about Chen’s whereabouts. Whatever. With China’s leadership mired in the Bo Xilai affair and Amerca’s in a presidential election, both governments will want a quiet solution, but are unlikely to get it because of the domestic political pressures.

The Obama administration was criticized domestically for not granting Wang Lijun, Bo’s police chief in Chongqing, asylum when he went to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu to reveal that Bo’s wife Gu Kailai was implicated in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. To deny asylum to Chen, if he asks for it, a person whose case the Americans have repeatedly raised on human rights grounds, would open the Obama administration to charges by his Republican opponents of again being “soft on China”, just as they accuse him of being over trade, currency and other economic issues. The administration, which doesn’t have the luxury of being able to criticize from the campaign trail without having to deal with the fallout from “interfering in China’s domestic affairs”, has been trying to walk a tightrope between promoting human rights without that a getting in the way of working with Beijing on global and regional issues that affect U.S. national interests.

With China’s rise as a regional and economic power, the two countries’ national interests intersect ever more frequently–Syria, Iran, North Korea, South China Sea, Taiwan–to list some current points of tension. All are ones where nationalist voices can be raised strongly at any time, and amplified by domestic politics. Within China, it doesn’t take much for the conservatives in Beijing to resurrect the specter that Washington is exploiting Chinese domestic events to weaken or encircle the country. One reason that the diplomats on both sides want a quiet, face-saving resolution to the Chen affair is that both sets know they have bigger issues to fight over.

Older readers may remember the case of Fang Lizhi, who sheltered in the U.S. embassy in Beijing for more a year in the wake of Tiananmen in 1989. It was caustic to China-U.S. relations.  The relationship has matured but also become more complex since. Yet a diplomatic sweeping under the carpet of an inconvenient affair is not what the diplomats are likely to get.  Chen is going to be a stern test of the bigger relationship.

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China Half-Heartedly Falling In Behind Kim To Head World Bank

Kim Yong Jim, U.S. nominee for President of the World Bank, March 2012One way to look at Jim Yong Kim (left), the U.S.’s surprise nominee to be the next president of the World Bank, is that he represents a transition from the leadership of the multilateral development agency being a Washington sinecure to a merit-based selection from developing countries. That is how it seems to be being seen in Beijing. Kim’s nomination “demonstrated that [U.S. President Barack Obama] has begun to take heed of the demands from the developing world for an expanded role within the global institution,” Xinhua said in a commentary.

Kim, though a U.S. citizen, is Korean-born. Currently president of one of American’s elite Ivy League universities, Dartmouth College, he is a health professional with long experience in the developing world, including running the HIV/AIDS department at the World Health Organization. More importantly, he is neither a Washington nor Wall Street retread.

One reason for the post-World War II gentleman’s agreement between the U.S. and Europe that the former would get to put an American in as head the World Bank and the later a European as managing director of the IMF, was that the Bank needed to secure the confidence of Wall Street, then its primary supplier of capital. That world has changed. Washington’s gift of the Bank’s presidency, along with Europe’s of the IMF’s managing directorship, is a 20th century convenience but a 21st century anachronism.

Kim is one of three candidates. Nigeria’s finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and Colombia’s former finance minister, Jose Antonio Ocampo, are the other two. Such is the voting structure of the Bank that it would take a broad-based European veto to block Kim. Even in the highly unlikely event of that happening, the U.S. could, in turn, veto either of the other two candidates. A new Bank president needs a supermajority of the Bank’s executive directors, 25 representatives of its member nations with voting power weighted in accordance to the capital they subscribe to the Bank.

Beijing has yet to tip its hand publicly. The decision it has to take is whether to get behind what looks to the winning horse, in the expectation that Kim may introduce further reform in the governance of the Bank from which China would be a beneficiary, perhaps the big winner, or to stand by one of the other two candidates in a show of developing-nation solidarity, though that would force it to make a choice between its friends in Africa and those in Latin America. We expect Beijing to go, along with the Europeans, with the first choice. The biggest hint in that direction came earlier this month from central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan. He said that it wasn’t worth paying much attention to the selection of a new head of the Bank as the job had always gone to an American. Coverage in state media has been correspondingly light and scarcely more interested.

As others have pointed out, the World Bank matters less to China now than China does to the World Bank. It may also matter less to the world than China. The commentator and academic, Martin Jacques, captures the point succinctly: “in 2009 and 2010 the China Development Bank and the China Exim Bank lent more to the developing world than the World Bank”.

It is telling that Beijing didn’t put a candidate of its own forward, nor was one of its own, save perhaps for Zhou, much talked about even as an outside possibility. The prize Beijing has its eye on is the top job at the IMF.

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China Cuts Its Holdings Of U.S. Treasuries–Or Not So Much

China cut its net holdings of U.S. Treasuries by 12% in the second half of last year, more than twice as much as previously reported, according to the preliminary annual revision of the U.S.’s monthly Treasury International Capital (TIC) report. And it probably doesn’t mean anything much beyond what we already know.

The new TIC report on major foreign holders of U.S. Treasury securities shows that China’s holdings fell from $1.31 trillion last July to $1.15 trillion in December, with a sharp net sell-off coming in that last month. The TIC monthly numbers had shown a fall from$1.17 trillion to $1.1 trillion over the same period. The annual revisions are considered more accurate than the monthly numbers. They take into account the true origin of buying done through third countries. A new series of monthly numbers introduced in January this year will narrow the accuracy gap, though not close it. (U.S. Treasury note on all this here.)

China buys a lot of U.S. Treasuries through London, and, to a lesser extent other popular custodial centers such as Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland and the Caribbean. Once this is taken into consideration, the preliminary June baseline number for its holdings increased to $1.31 trillion from $1.17 trillion. Hence the doubling of the percentage net sell-off in the second half of last year.

A year-on-year comparison paints a different picture: China’s holdings at $1.15 in December 2011 were down less than 1% from $1.16 trillion a year earlier, and might have been higher had there not been a heavy sell off in December last year from November’s holdings of $1.25 trillion. China typically reduces its Treasuries holdings towards the end of a year.

The numbers for the second half of last year were always likely to be closely watched. The political kerfuffle in Washington over the debt ceiling during the autumn put the U.S.’s AAA-credit rating at risk. Also, overseas investors generally were buying higher-yielding U.S. mortgage securities ahead of what was expected to be a further round of quantitative easing by the U.S. Federal Reserve.

There are other factors consistent with a long-term fall in China’s Treasuries holdings, among them a shrinking trade surplus and the gradual rise in the yuan against the dollar. This time round, Beijing has also likely been buying euro-denominated sovereign debt, both to diversify it holdings further (which it has been doing for some time) at fire-sale prices, and to provide some political backstopping for Europe during the euro-debt crisis. The State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE), which manages the country’s foreign exchange reserves, is also pursuing equity investment and a little buying of gold and more of other commodities. When you are sitting on $3.2 trillion in reserves, you have to chase a little yield. The Wall Street Journal calculates that the share of China’s reserves in U.S. securities has fallen to a decade-low 54%.

While SAFE  hasn’t been putting all the extra foreign-exchange reserves that China has been taking in into U.S. dollar denominated assets for a while, more recently, the U.S. Federal Reserve has been buying long-term Treasury bonds as part of its easing program, Operation Twist, as the putative QE3 became. Americans who bleated about their country being in hock to the Chinese, can now bleat about being in hock to their own Federal Reserve–for some an even greater evil. For the rest, China still owns more than $1 trillion of American sovereign debt to get het up about. Nor does China have too many other places to put it.

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Lights. Camera. But How Much More Action For Hollywood In China?

There may be less than meets the eye, and certainly less than the hype, to the trade concessions the U.S. has won for Hollywood from Beijing. The deal raises to 34 from 20 the number of non-Chinese films than can be distributed in China each year, by the device of adding 14 3-D or IMAX films to the base quota. As China has only 2,500 3-D movie screens and 48 IMAX theaters the significant concession is that those 14 will also be allowed in in their 2-D formats, which will be able to be seen on China’s 10,500 conventional cinema screens. The U.S. has 40,000 screens. The U.S. also releases 8,000-9,000 new films a year.

Most of the 20 foreign films a year that have been allowed into China for the past 20 years are American. The three top grossing foreign films in China last year were Transformers 3, Kung Fu Panda 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. They took $170 million, $98 million and $76 million at the box office respectively. Even more pleasing for Hollywood, under the new deal, its cut on box-office takings will rise to 25% from 13%. Hollywood typically expects a 30% fee on foreign distribution, but with 13% and all the other restrictions having been the rule for China for two decades, this feels like the “very big deal” it is being proclaimed to be in Hollywood, at least for the blessed 34 films.

The American movie industry has long complained about its treatment in the world’s fastest growing movie market. The WTO ruled in 2009 that China’s limits on movie distribution fees was a violation of international trade rules. Beijing has not rushed to come into compliance, and promoting China’s own cultural heritage has become a national priority. Yet even as China tightened restrictions on foreign TV imports, Xi Jinping’s visit to the U.S. allowed the logjam in negotiations over movies to be broken. It was something that China would have have to have done at some point anyway, and is far less expensive than settling the outstanding issues with the U.S. over intellectual property. It would be a brave man, though, to this Bystander’s mind, who would bet that the showing of 14 more Hollywood movies in China each year will dampen the demand for pirated DVDs, a main prop of Hollywood’s argument for increasing the distribution fees.

China is expected to double the number of movie screens it has to 16,000 by 2015. The ones it had took in $2.1 billion at the box office last year. The key question is how much of that will the U.S. movie industry actually get its hands on. Hollywood distributors may soon understand why the old saw, there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip, applies so readily to doing business as a foreign firm in China. We’ve heard of one distributor who gets the house photographed each screening to settle arguments of how many tickets have actually been bought. The right for foreign film distributors to audit box-office sales might turn out to be the most important provisions of the new agreement.

The position is even worse for foreign co-producers operating in China. Some 40 independently produced foreign movies are distributed in China each year outside of the quota system. These independent films don’t get a cut of the box office, but a licence fee based on the film’s budget. It is about a third of the standard international fee. Under the new rules, filmmakers and distributors will be able to negotiate license fees closer to international norms. But the fee is just the beginning of what seems regularly to turn into a nightmare. The China Law Blog has had a series of excellent posts on this subject last year that don’t make pretty reading if you are a would-be film producer.

Why is it so hard for foreign co-producers to get paid? There are three main reasons:

1. There are no trusted intermediaries for film in China. Collection agents, escrow account holders, trustees and the like simply do not exist here in China. The foundations of international film finance are not in place. In itself, that makes you wonder how completion guarantors can underwrite Sino-foreign co-productions.

2. You need to rely on your Chinese co-producer to collect the box office and pay your share to you outside of China. Good luck with that.

3. Even if you are lucky and your Chinese co-producer has some vague intention of paying you, they cannot pay you unless they can show the Chinese tax authorities that income tax has been paid on the gross receipts and that the withholding tax on their payment to you will be deducted. Even then, they will still need State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) approval before being able to send money overseas. The vast majority of Chinese businesses will not want to do business this way.

We hope that DreamWorks Animation, which has just signed a $300 million joint venture to make movies in China, is a reader.

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