China: Complicated but clear

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Covid-19 is complicated. Only an idiot would expect governments and their institutions to get everything, or even most things, right first time. But there is a premium on clarity of approach, honesty about mistakes and a commitment to learn from them.

If you live in a country where any of those things happen, lucky you. But, at least very poor handling of the crisis is merely a product of collective and institutionalised arrogance, incompetence and dissembling.

When it comes to international industrial relations, then cynicism and hypocrisy come to the party. Of course, it is complicated too. The West has cheered on China’s steady emergence as an economic power ever since the lifting of the business Bamboo Curtain by Deng Xiaoping. Many thought that as the economy liberalised, the political scene would follow. Wrong. But then we just figured that at least an authoritarian one-party state with a roaring economy provided a stable, well organised, place to put ultra-low cost manufacturing. And then when all that activity meant parts of Chinese society became rich, we began to see it as a marketplace as well – happy days!

But because China was poor in the 70s and 80s, few thought they needed to bother offering any knowledge or technology transfer. China was one massive subcontracting factory, knocking out everything from templates provided by its customers, at the lowest possible price. It had no major companies or brands impacting outside China, and few thought it ever would.

Perhaps not surprisingly, China just started nicking the templates. And then suddenly it had brands – and some of them were fast becoming world-leading. Stealing designs and innovations isn’t good practice, and it should have been clearly called out over the last 20 years. This is the one thing President Trump has right (it is just this one). But by the time it was obvious that Chinese companies were getting ahead of the global curve, China was too important as a market to call it out. And now a complicated situation is becoming a dangerous one.


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