Professor Constantine Michalopoulos: “China has brought its policies closer to the norm”

On April 22, Development Thought & Policy at The New School was pleased to host its fourth and penultimate event of the Spring 2015 semester: “China and the WTO: Pursuing Political and Economic Interests?” This event, which took place in the iconic Orozco Room at Alvin Johnson / J.M. Kaplan Hall, featured an initial lecture from Professor Constantine Michalopoulos, former economist at the World Bank and WTO, as well as a current professor of international affairs at Johns Hopkins. A lively discussion followed his remarks, with Khalid Malik (former UN Resident Coordinator in China) and our own Dean William Milberg (of NSSR) weighing in. The event was chaired by GPIA Professor Sakiko Fukuda-Parr.

Professor Michalopoulos’ lecture focused on China’s role within the WTO, and echoed the results of a paper which he wrote for the 13th Annual Conference on China and the WTO, in Beijing, entitled China and Developing Countries in the WTO. The paper seeks to clarify whether or not there is a bias against China in the WTO, using the number of anti-dumping initiated against China as a proxy. Surprisingly, the study found that while such investigations have been on the rise of late, they have not kept pace with the growth of China’s exports. In other words, we would expect more investigations against China than there actually are, given the amount of trade which they conduct. Professor Michalopoulos concluded, “China, in my view, has brought its policies closer to the norm of its international trading partners… China is not misbehaving, and when it has, it has been brought to court and it has changed its policies.”

Following those initial remarks, Dean Milberg commented on the larger strategic shift suggested by this report, “the transition from being a developing, mercantilist, protectionist economy into a world hegemon,” or as he later put it, “from a rule-taker into a rule-maker.” This shift, from developing to developed, was the subject of much of the remaining discussion. As Khalid Malik pointed out, being a developing country is “fundamental to how [the Chinese] think of themselves.” Yet in the WTO all developing countries are treated the same; China and Brazil stand on allegedly equal footing with Jamaica and Suriname.

China is taking positions within the WTO which are very much in line with other ‘developing countries’, even though those positions may be “inimical to their own economic interests,” as Prof. Michalopoulos put it. Are they doing so out of ideological solidarity? A shared antipathy for the dominant (if aging) powers? A larger political design? At present, it is difficult to say. Mr. Malik believed that it is tempting to try and divine too much from contradictory signals: “the China approach gives outside people a chance to read whatever they want in the tea leaves.”

All in all it was a fascinating event, with both distinguished scholars and distinguished guests. This is the second DTP event in a row which has focused on China and its evolving policies (our first featured a lecture from Professor Fulong Wu on Chinese urban planning). As development thinkers and practitioners, we all stand rightly in awe of the Chinese success in removing hundreds of millions from poverty. Yet as politically aware individuals, it is natural to wonder at the costs of such achievements, and the sustainability of such a closed-off political system. Such questions are important to consider, and Development Thought & Policy is a wonderful forum for the exchange of ideas and the meeting of minds.

We would like to thank the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis (SCEPA) for sponsoring this event; without their participation it would not have been possible. Further, we are deeply indebted to Mr. Malik, Dean Milberg, and of course Professor Michalopoulos for their time and generous insight. Please join us on May 6 at 2pm for our final Development Thought & Policy event, “Austerity and Neoliberalism in Greece“, a discussion with GPIA Professor Richard Wolffand PhD candidate Achilles Kallergis.