China-bashing is taking its toll.

Over the past year, Americans have been fed a fairly steady stream of news about the People’s Republic of China – and most of it hasn’t been particularly positive.

While Russia may get the more fevered news headlines because of the various political investigations happening in Washington, the current U.S. presidential administration hasn’t shied away from criticizing China on a range woes – trade policy in particular most recently, but also diverse other issues like alleged unfair technology transfer policies, plus the building of man-made islands in the South China Sea thereby bringing Chinese military power closer to other countries in the Pacific Rim.

The drumbeat of criticism could be expected to affect popular opinion about China – and that appears to be the case based on a just-published report from the Pew Research Center.

The Pew report is based on a survey of 1,500 American adults age 18 and over, conducted during the spring of 2018.  It’s a survey that’s been conducted annually since 2012 using the same set of questions (and going back annually to 2005 for a smaller group of the questions).

The newest study shows that the opinions Americans have about China have become somewhat less positive over the past year, after having nudged higher in 2017.

The topline finding is this: today, ~38% of Americans have a favorable opinion of China, which is a drop of six percentage points from Pew’s 2017 finding of ~44%.  We are now flirting with the same favorability levels that Pew was finding during the 2013-2016 period [see the chart above].

Drilling down further, the most significant concerns pertain to China’s economic competition, not its military strength. In addition to trade and tariff concerns, another area of growing concern is about the threat of cyber-attacks from China.

There are also the perennial concerns about the amount of U.S. debt held by China, as well as job losses to China; this has been a leading issue in the Pew surveys dating back to 2012. But even though debt levels remain a top concern, its raw score has fallen pretty dramatically over the past six years.

On the other hand, a substantial and growing percentage of Americans expresses worries about the impact of China’s growth on the quality of the global environment.

Interestingly, the proportion of Americans who consider China’s military prowess to be a bigger threat compared to an economic threat has dropped by a statistically significant seven percentage points over the past year – from 36% to 29%. Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger Americans age 18-29 are far less prone to have concerns over China’s purported saber-rattling – differing significantly from how senior-age respondents feel on this topic.

Taken as a group, eight issues presented by Pew Research in its survey revealed the following ranking of factors, based on whether respondents consider them to be “a serious problem for the United States”:

  • Large U.S. debt held by China: ~62% of respondents consider a “serious problem”
  • Cyber-attacks launched from China: ~57%
  • Loss of jobs to China: ~52%
  • China’s impact on the global environment: ~49%
  • Human rights issues:  ~49%
  • The U.S. trade deficit with China: ~46%
  • Chinese territorial disputes with neighboring countries: ~32%
  • Tensions between China and Taiwan: ~21%

Notice that the U.S. trade deficit isn’t near the top of the list … but Pew does find that it is rising as a concern.

If the current trajectory of tit-for-tat tariff impositions continues to occur, I suspect we’ll see the trade issue being viewed by the public as a more significant problem when Pew administers its next annual survey one year from now.

Furthermore, now that the United States has just concluded negotiations with Canada and Mexico on a “new NAFTA” agreement, coupled with recent trade agreements made with South Korea and the EU countries, it makes the administration’s target on China as “the last domino” just that much more significant.

More detailed findings from the Pew Research survey can be viewed here.

China’s controversial product supplier pledge: An “on the ground” view from the Far East.

The business world is abuzz about the latest moves by China to regulate the behavior of U.S. and other foreign companies that choose to do business in that country.  What’s the real skinny?

contract

While much of the reporting and commentary has been decidedly scant on details, we can actually take a look at the official document that contains the various provisos the Chinese government is intending to impose on foreign companies.

Ostensibly, the declaration is aimed at “protecting user security.” Here are the six provisions that make up the declaration:

Information Technology Product Supplier Declaration of Commitment to Protect User Security

Our company agrees to strictly adhere to the two key principles of “not harming national security and not harming consumer rights” and hereby promises to:

#1.  Respect the user’s right to know. To clearly advise users of the scope, purpose, quantity, storage location, etc. of information collected about the user; and to use clear and easy-to-understand language in the user agreement regarding policies and details of protecting user security and privacy.

#2.  Respect the user’s right to control. To permit the user to determine the scope of information that is collected and products and systems that are controlled; to collect user information only after openly obtaining user permission, and to use collected user information to [sic] the authorized purposes only.

#3.  Respect the user’s right to choice. To allow the user to agree, reject or withdraw agreement for collection of user information; to permit the user to choose to install or uninstall non-essential components; to not restrict user selection of other products and services.

#4.  Guarantee product safety and trustworthiness. To use effective measures to ensure the security and trustworthiness of products during the design, development, production, delivery and maintenance processes; to provide timely notice and fixes upon discovery of security vulnerabilities; to not install any hidden functionalities or operations the user is unaware of [sic] within the product.

#5.  Guarantee the security of user information. To employ effective measures to guarantee that any user information that is collected or processed isn’t illegally altered, leaked, or used; to not transfer, store or process any sensitive user information collected within the China market outside China’s borders without express permission of the user or approval from relevant authorities.

#6.  Accept the supervision of all parts of society. To promise to accept supervision from all parts of society, to cooperate with third-party institutions for assessment and verification that products are secure and controllable and that user information is protected etc. to prove actual compliance with these commitments.

Often with China, there are “official” pronouncements … and then there’s what’s “really” going on behind the curtain.

So to find out the real skinny, I decided to ask my brother, Nelson Nones, who has lived and worked in East Asia for years.  Since Nelson’s business activities take him to China and all of the other key Asian economies on a regular basis, I figured that his perspectives would be well-grounded and worth hearing.  Here’s Nelson’s take:

Points 1 through 3 are fundamentally no different from the provisions of personal data protection laws already on the books in the 27 member states of the European Union, plus Australia, Hong Kong, Iceland, India, Japan, South Korea, Liechtenstein, Macau, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan and some U.S. states.  Nor do they materially differ from privacy policy best practices — so I would not see these as particularly onerous or unreasonable.

The key difference is that these points are not enshrined in law in Mainland China, so compliance is voluntary at the moment (as it was in Singapore until 2013) – presumably binding on only those companies that sign this declaration. 

News reports also indicate that China has asked only American technology companies to sign its Declaration of Commitment, implying that domestic Chinese companies aren’t necessarily held to the same standards — although if this is truly the case, it might actually put Chinese companies at a competitive disadvantage by enhancing the appeal of American technology products to discerning Chinese users.

Point 4 doesn’t generally fall within the scope of existing personal data protection laws, but in my view its provisions fall well within the QA and warranty commitments that any legitimate technology company should be prepared to make in today’s competitive environment.

Comparing Point 5 with legislation currently in force within the European Union, Australia, Hong Kong, Iceland, India, Japan, South Korea, Liechtenstein, Macau, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan and some U.S. states, this point lacks some really key definitions, including:  

  • Who exactly is a “data subject” who is entitled to personal (i.e. user) data protection?
  • Who exactly is the “data controller” who owns the user information that is being collected or processed?
  • Who might be the “data processor” who stores and/or processes user information on behalf of the “data controller”?

EU Data Protection DirectiveThe legislation and regulations I’ve reviewed in this realm provide very explicit (and varied) definitions of these entities. Unlike China’s Declaration of Commitment, for instance, the E.U. Data Protection Directive allows “data controllers” or “data processors” to transfer user data outside the E.U., as long as the country where the data is transferred protects the rights of “data subjects” as much as the E.U. 

It also defines which “data controllers” and “data processors” must comply with E.U. law, based on whether or not they store or process personal information with the E.U., or operate within the E.U. (regardless of where the data is actually stored or processed).

The requirement to keep sensitive user information within China’s borders, in the absence of permission from users or “relevant authorities” to transfer, store or process it elsewhere, could also be seen as an attempt by the Chinese government to enlist the help of American technology companies in circumventing the U.S. government’s ongoing Internet data-gathering programs.

If this attempt succeeds, it might further enhance the appeal of American technology products to discerning Chinese users. 

Point 6 is garnering the most headlines in the West because of the implied threat that cooperating with “third-party institutions for assessment and verification … to prove actual compliance with these commitments” could mean being forced to reveal source code or encryption algorithms.  

However, in classic Chinese style, none of that is actually spelled out. 

Green Dam Youth Escort ServiceA little history about this: Over the past decade, the Chinese government has put forward various proposals for controlling IT – and then abruptly withdrawing them in the face of domestic as well as global criticism. Here are two: 

As for implications, China’s Declaration of Commitment shouldn’t have significant impact on companies that aren’t in the consumer IT market.  At best, its first five points could potentially improve the competitiveness of American IT products in the  Chinese market.    

However, I would advise any tech companies that may be wondering what to do, to sit on their hands for a while. Law in China is always a “work in progress,” so the safest bet is to wait for that “progress” for as long as possible.

So there you have it – the view from someone who is smack in the middle of the business economy in East Asia. If you have your own perspectives to share on the topic, I’m sure other readers would be interested to hear them as well.

How China’s economic woes will affect the United States: A view from East Asia.

Chinese economyIt’s only natural for Americans to be somewhat spooked about what’s happening in the financial markets, what with thousand-point drops on the stock exchanges and all.

It’s even more disconcerting to realize that the forces in play are ones that have little to do with the American economy and a lot more to do with Europe and China. (China in particular, where bubbles seem to be bursting all over the place with the fallout being felt everywhere else.)

In times like this, I seek out the thoughts and perspectives of my brother, Nelson Nones, an IT specialist and business owner who has lived and worked outside the United States for nearly 20 years — much of that time spend in the Far East.

To me, Nelson’s thoughts on world economic matters are always worth hearing because he has the benefit of weighing issues from a global perspective instead of simply a more parochial one (like mine).

Nelson Nones
Nelson Nones

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to ask Nelson a few questions about what’s happening in the Chinese economy, how it is affecting the U.S. economy, and what he sees coming down the road. Here are his perspectives:

PLN: What is your view of the Chinese economy — and what does the future portend?

NMN: I’m a real pessimist when it comes to the current state of the Chinese economy. I also think the Chinese will turn on themselves politically as their economic house of cards is collapsing — so look for a sharp upturn in political and social turmoil as well.

Just as the bubble burst in the U.S. and Europe in 2007-08, it’s bursting now in China — and the rest of East Asia (South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Singapore) are going to get caught in the fallout because of the extent to which their economies are reliant on trade with China.

 PLN: What do you look at, specifically, for clues as to future economic movements?

NMN: The barometer to watch is the price of oil. It plummeted in 2007, presaging the “great recession” in the West.

untitledOil prices began to drop again in 2014.  The U.S. oil benchmark fell below $40 per barrel on August 24, 2015, a level not seen since 2009. I believe the underlying root cause is a sharp contraction of East Asian demand due to the economic bubbles bursting over here, coupled with persistently high supply as Middle Eastern oil exporters compete against American producers to protect market share.

PLN: How will these developments affect the U.S. economy?

NMN: The oil bust will continue in the U.S., dragging the economy down. But energy prices will be lower, buoying other parts of the American economy.  For instance, the domestic airline sector will benefit and consequential demand for Boeing jets will grow.

U.S. imports — specifically, imports from China and the rest of East Asia — will become cheaper as China and other countries allow their currencies to fall in order to protect their exports.

This is probably a “net-neutral” for the US economy in that American exports will be hurt due to the relatively stronger U.S. Dollar, but American consumers will benefit from lower prices. So, the direct economic impact is likely to be mixed.

PLN: So, why worry?

NMN: The real risk, in my opinion, is a global liquidity crisis. Over the past quarter-century, China and other East Asian countries have accrued enormous wealth. But they didn’t hoard their newfound wealth; they invested it both domestically and overseas.

China has invested ginormous amounts of cash in domestic infrastructure and housing. That money is already spent, and a sizeable part of the investment has already gone to waste in the form of corruption, new housing that nobody wants, underutilized transport infrastructure and non-performing loans made to inefficient state-owned enterprises. 

All of this will eventually need to be written off (that’s why their bubble is bursting).

But China has also invested lots of money in overseas financial instruments. Think of the Chinese as the folks who financed the Federal Reserve’s Quantitative Easing program as well as Federal debt in the U.S. But as the Chinese run out of cash at home, they will increasingly need to liquidate their overseas investments just to pay their bills.

This poses a very real threat to the fiscal stability of U.S. and European governments, and to the supply of capital in U.S. and European financial markets.

The Federal Reserve is likely to be caught in a double-bind. On the one hand, if the Fed raises interest rates in response to the reduced supply of capital (as it is widely assumed they will, later this year), they risk choking off the tepid U.S. recovery currently underway.

This would also cause the U.S. Dollar to strengthen further, thereby exacerbating the negative impact of the Chinese bust by making U.S. exports less competitive in global markets.

On the other hand, if the Fed leaves interest rates where they are (basically zero), then they won’t be able to attract enough capital to roll over the public debt that the Chinese are trying to liquidate. In other words, the Fed risks a “run on the bank.”

The Fed can deal with this by printing more money (more or less what the Chinese did in 2007-8), but this would inevitably introduce inflationary pressures in the U.S. It would also lengthen the time it takes for the Chinese to right their ship, because it will put downward pressure on the U.S. Dollar, thereby constraining whatever the East Asians can do to boost exports.

My guess is that the Federal Reserve will “blink” and keep interest rates at zero (and also print more money to pay off the Chinese) in hopes that (somewhat) cheaper imports will offset (some of) the inflationary impact of printing more money.

This is equivalent to kicking the can down the road.

PLN: Do you see any impact on the 2016 Presidential race in the United States?

NMN: As a result of kicking the can down the road, I foresee little impact on the 2016 U.S. Presidential race — but watch out in 2020 when the hangover is well underway.

Alternatively if the Fed raises interest rates, I suspect the Democratic Party candidate will be more vulnerable because the short-term economic pain will be much higher in the U.S. The incumbent party will get most of the blame. Fair or not, that’s just the way bread-and-butter issues play out in American politics.

PLN: What about unrest in China — might that have political repercussions in America? 

NMN: The way I see it, political or social turmoil in China will have zero impact on the U.S. Presidential race. Americans of nearly every political stripe or ideology dislike or distrust Chinese governance, yet unlike the “China lobby” of the Cold War era, they have no appetite to intervene in what they rightly perceive to be internal Chinese affairs.  

Or they’re clueless about events in East Asia. Or they just don’t care.

So there you have it — a view from the Far East. If you have other perspectives, please share them with our readers here.

______________

Update (8/28/15):  A few days after this post was uploaded, I received this follow-up from Nelson:

Just as I had predicted, check out this link.  Federal debt is getting more expensive to finance, because the drop in demand for U.S. Treasury bonds (caused by the Chinese liquidation apparently underway) is driving yields up.  According to the article, “The liquidation of such a large position, if it continues, could wreak havoc on the Treasuries market.”
Now look here:  http://www.bloombergview.com/quicktake/federal-reserve-quantitative-easing-tape. It’s an easily understandable explanation of how the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing (QE) program worked.  Essentially the Fed, like China, stepped in to buy Treasuries also. The Fed also bought mortgage-backed securities.
The Fed’s purchases of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities now make up ~85% of the Fed’s assets.  The Fed hasn’t indicated what it will do when these assets mature, but if it doesn’t roll over this debt (or a portion thereof) then we can expect Treasury yields to rise yet again. Even if the Fed decides to keep interest rates where they are, at near-zero, rising Treasury yields could bring on a liquidity crunch within the private sector as capital is increasingly drawn away from private investments (loans, corporate bonds and equities) to government-issued bonds paying higher yields with little risk.
Facing the Chinese liquidation, this is why I suspect the Fed will opt to roll over its holdings of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities, and keep interest rates at near-zero, at least through the 2016 Presidential election cycle.  The Bloomberg article cited above describes QE as an alternative to printing more money, but in the end it’s really the same thing.

Hotel in a Hurry: 30 Stories Built in 15 Days

Chalk up another eyebrow-raising construction engineering marvel in Asia. Malaysia and Taiwan may have the world’s largest skyscrapers, but China is becoming the “quick construction” center of the universe.

The latest example is a 30-story hotel prototype structure built in Changsha, China in just 15 days at the end of last year.

Broad Group, the construction company responsible for the feat, claims that the 183,000 sq. ft. hotel can withstand a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, along with being substantially more energy efficient, sound and heat insulated than conventionally constructed facilities.

Broad Group completed this hotel just a few weeks after completing another “quick construct” project in China’s Hunan Province — the 15-story Ark Hotel — in just six days.

Here’s a time-elapsed video of the Ark Hotel construction, spanning a grand total of 360 hours. Reportedly, there were no on-the-job injuries despite the hyper-compressed timeframe.

How did Broad Group accomplish this feat? The company reports that it uses prefabricated modules rather than building the entire structure onsite. These modules shorten the time while making construction management coordination much easier. It’s interesting to see in the video how that coordination works to telescope the time needed for building.

Of course, the next question that comes to mind is whether something like this could ever be “exported” to the United States. Or would there be a raft of regulations, safety and environmental obstacles in the way to make it impossible?

Anyone care to weigh in with thoughts?

Over-Hyping the “Made in China” Situation?

Made in China ... as threatening as we think?“Made in China” aren’t the most welcome-sounding words to American workers these days. Many of us believe that the plethora of goods it manufactures means the People’s Republic of China is grabbing scads of U.S. jobs as well.

Recent reports about Apple’s scads of assembly facilities in China only add fuel to fiery debate … and at least one presidential candidate is making the loss of manufacturing jobs a key component of his campaign rhetoric.

So I was surprised to read the findings of an analysis performed by economists Galina Borisova Hale and Bart Hobijn which contends that goods and services from China accounted for only ~2.7% of personal consumption expenditures in the United States in 2010.

What’s more, less than half of that amount reflected the actual cost of Chinese imports. The remainder went to American businesses and employees transporting and selling the products carrying the “Made in China” mark.

The report, which draws on data published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources, states that total U.S. imports in 2010 amounted to about 16% of total Gross Domestic Product.

More specifically, imports from China amounted to ~2.5% of GDP. Moreover, nearly 90% of consumer spending in the United States during 2010 was on American-generated products and services.

Of course, services – which comprise about two-thirds of total spending – are mainly produced locally. And when we consider items like automobiles and electronics, the picture is different: One-third of U.S. consumption on durables goes for goods that are made outside the country.

It’s not hard to guess which products are the ones most likely to be imported from China; they’re primarily electronics, furniture, clothing and shoes. Offshore sourcing is most pronounced in apparel and shoes, where more than 35% of U.S. purchases in these categories were of items labeled “Made in China.”

No wonder so many clothing mills in America have gone the way of the dodo bird.

Without dismissing the impact of overseas manufacturing on manufacturing jobs in the United States, the broader statistics suggest that any long-term drop in American manufacturing employment is due to more factors than merely Chinese labor competition. Undoubtedly, advanced manufacturing technology and productivity gains per worker have a lot to do with it as well.

It looks like the “Made in China” debate may be another example of how the issues and challenges we face in the world are rarely ones of “black and white” … but rather “shades of gray.”

Jobless Americans and Gallows Humor …

Jobless AmericansThere’s a funny-yet-sobering ditty bounding about cyberspace that chronicles a day in the life of an unemployed American looking for work.

Whether it’s the alarm clock, the coffee pot, clothing, appliances, the car and the gasoline it takes to run it, everything with which this person interfaces during the course of the day comes from overseas – especially China or some other East Asian country.

For those of you who haven’t encountered this satirical little piece yet, you can read it here.

Dana Bales, an industry colleague of mine who is a managing partner at Dayton, OH-based NEO Marketing Communications, reacted to this joke by noting a few key points about China. He writes:

I’m a free trade advocate. I absolutely support NAFTA. But for the life of me, I don’t get our trade relationship with China. Let me get this straight:

 China imposes trade barriers to many of our goods and services.

 China allows its industries to pollute with impunity, keeping its costs for manufactured goods lower while adding to atmospheric and oceanic pollution.

 China allows its citizens and companies to rip off non-Chinese patents.

 Although experts may disagree on the degree of impact, China manipulates its currency to benefit its own export goods.

 China actively supports efforts to hack into U.S. corporate and defense systems, stealing untold billions of dollars’ worth of technology.

 China uses American dollars to subsidize its own industries.

Food for thought, indeed – even if you don’t agree with every single one of Bales’ statements.

It would be nice, too, if our government and trade officials could focus on coming up with some workable solutions to these issues. I think we’d all be happier if we could relegate this sort of gallows humor to the literary trash can!

Remembering Ace Fighter Pilot John Alison (1912-2011)

This past week, the world lost one of the greatest combat pilots of all time when Major General John R. ‘Johnny’ Alison died at the age of 98.

While John Alison may not be well-known to today’s public, he was quite a famous and impressive personality during the years of World War II and beyond. Although best-known for his activities in the Pacific Theaters including China-Burma-India, he also advised General Dwight Eisenhower on the use of gliders to ferry troops during the D-Day invasion of Continental Europe.

The first 35 years of General Alison’s life reads like a thriller novel. He became interested in flying during his high school years in Florida. A prodigy at flying, his first military stint was at Langley Field in Virginia in the late 1930s where he excelled at flying every form of aircraft.

Upon the outbreak of World War II, Alison was sent as a military attaché to England to support the Royal Air Force’s efforts to assemble and fly the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk aircraft that were being supplied by President Roosevelt under the Lend-Lease Act.

It was a mission he would repeat in the Soviet Union in 1941 after that country had been invaded by the Axis forces. He would later recount the frightening-yet-thrilling sensation of standing on the rooftop of the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Moscow, watching the German armies as they approached the city.

Alison was to escape the chaos of the Eastern Front by venturing through Iran to reach the port city of Basra in Iraq. From there, he ventured on to China and the Pacific campaigns in the Allies’ war with Japan.

In 1942, General Alison was tapped to be deputy commander of the 75th Flying Squadron, famous as the “Flying Tigers” whose pilots defended Chinese cities from Japanese air assaults. Commenting on his prowess in the sky, David Lee ‘Tex’ Hill, Alison’s commanding officer, would later write:

“John Alison had the greatest pure flying skill of any pilot in the theater – a touch on the controls that knew no equal. His talents were matched only by his eagerness for combat.”

As the war ground on, in 1944 Alison became a co-commander of the first Air Commando Force, which he organized as an ingenious operation to establish fortified bases behind Japanese enemy lines in Burma (Myanmar). This endeavor was to make the frontal army assault on Burma from British India far more effective.

And General Alison was by no means just an armchair strategist in carrying out this initiative; he led a force of 15 men, personally piloting a glider to an improvised landing strip on a teakwood plantation in establishing one of the Burma bases.

At the conclusion of World War II and with so many spectacular adventures behind him, Alison was all of 33 years old. What to do for an encore after such an eventful life already?

Not one to fly off into the sunset, Alison served as an assistant secretary of commerce during the administration of Harry Truman, and later participated in the Korean War. He retired from military service in 1955, beginning a second 3–year career working in the private sector for Northrop Corporation, from which he would retire as a senior vice president in 1984.

It’s been noted that many prominent aviators have lived extraordinarily long lives. During the near-century span of General Alison’s noteworthy life and career, he was honored on numerous occasions times for his record of military service, including receiving the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star.

In 1994, he was inducted into the Air Commando Hall of Fame, and in 2005 was given the same distinction by the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

These honors rightly memorialize the extraordinary life of John Alison. But there is a small anecdote about the man that neatly sums it all up. In 1940, Alison was participating in a demonstration of P-40 planes for Nationalist Chinese General Chiang Kai-Shek … who, duly imprsssed, promptly declared that he needed 100 of the aircraft for his war effort against the Japanese.

Pointing to Alison, the leader of the U.S. delegation responded to Chiang saying, “No, sir! You need 100 of those!”