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Attack of the Killer Bras

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Attack of the Killer Bras

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

Published: December 10, 2003

HUN SHUI VILLAGE, China — The most important thing happening in the world today is the rise of China, and that's the reality hovering in the background of the delicate U.S.-China talks under way in Washington this week.

So I decided to "cover" the talks not in Washington, where it's easy to be overwhelmed by details of Chinese bra imports and U.S. policy toward Taiwan, but here in southern China's Taishan area, which accounted for a majority of Chinese emigrants to the U.S. until a few decades ago.

The descendants of Taishan include my wife, Sheryl WuDunn. (A WuDunn is what you get when you cross a Wu ancestor who doesn't speak English with a U.S. immigration officer who doesn't speak Chinese.) When Sheryl and I first traveled here in 1987, we met her distant cousins, poor peasants who spent their time wading in the rice paddies. The entire clan had about as many teeth as Sheryl does.

Back then, Shun Shui Village had no paved roads, no motor vehicles, no telephones and three black-and-white televisions. Now, along the paved road through the village, every house has a color television, and most have phones and motorcycles. Among Sheryl's distant kin, the youngest son of parents with only a second-grade education has just graduated from the university and bought a cellphone.

Multiply Shun Shui's transformation by the 700,000 villages of China, and you begin to appreciate the implications of China's industrial revolution. One study has found that China accounted for 25 percent of the world's economic growth from 1995 to 2002 (measured by purchasing power parity), more than the U.S.

Soaring Chinese demand has become the major force propping up world energy prices, and the International Energy Agency predicts that China will have net oil imports of four million barrels a day by 2010 — twice Iraq's current oil exports.

Where will that oil come from? What will China's carbon emissions mean for global warming and the New Jersey coastline? Will the U.S. and China go to war over Taiwan, or over the Diaoyu Islands now controlled by Japan? Will China sustain its boom or collapse into chaos?

Instead of engaging on these issues, the White House and both parties in Congress seem intent on launching a new trade war with China. Washington appears unable to focus on anything more weighty than the supposed Chinese dumping of bras and nightgowns in our markets (even though U.S. companies don't make bras).

That's myopia. There was a wonderful American movie in 1966 called "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming," which poked fun at anti-Soviet hysteria. Maybe it's time for an update: "The Chinese Nighties Are Coming!"

President Bush has generally handled China quite sensibly, and it was also smart to warn Taiwan against steps toward independence. China's leaders have reciprocated, and have been especially helpful this year in restraining North Korea.

But with next year's elections approaching, the White House has turned demagogic and begun clubbing China over trade so as to win votes in manufacturing states, while endangering cooperation on a broader agenda. There are plenty of reasons to prod China to behave better — I know people who are in prison here, including a South Korean photographer (who often shoots pictures for The Times), whose only sin was documenting the plight of North Korean refugees in China. But our trade denunciations are petty and intellectually dishonest.

Unlike Japan a decade ago, China does not have a huge global trade surplus. Its imports are growing faster than its exports, up 40 percent this year. And exports to America grew after factories moved from Taiwan and Hong Kong to the mainland. Moreover, some 52 percent of China's exports come from foreign-owned factories.

One can quibble about China's keeping its currency cheap to promote exports. But China is stabilizing its currency by buying U.S. debt, financing Mr. Bush's budget deficit and keeping U.S. mortgage rates low.

Managing the rise of China will be one of the world's toughest challenges in coming years. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao is offering Mr. Bush both cooperation and patience, and it ill behooves us to slap him around for selling us cheap bras.

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/10/opinion/10KRIS.html

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