Why China will not buy the world
The Chinese economy is marked by its dependence on others
An employee carries bundles of 100 yuan notes in a bank in Shainxi province. Photograph: Jon Woo/Reuters
China frightens the West. Rarely, however, do westerners look at how the world looks to China. Yes, it has made enormous economic strides. But it still sees a world economy dominated by developed economies.
Among the few westerners able to look at the world from the Chinese point of view is Peter Nolan, professor of Chinese development at Cambridge University. In a thought-provoking book published last year, he addressed one of the big fears about China – that it is buying the world. His answer is no: we are inside China but China is not inside us.
To understand what Prof Nolan means by this, one must understand his view of what has happened during three decades of technology-driven global economic integration. The world economy has been transformed, he argues, by the emergence, through mergers, acquisition and foreign direct investment, of a limited number of dominant businesses, almost entirely rooted in advanced countries.
At the heart of the new global economy are what Prof Nolan calls “systems integrator” companies – businesses with dominant brands and superior technologies, which are at the apex of value chains that serve the global middle classes. These global businesses, in turn, exert enormous pressure on their supply chains, creating ever-rising consolidation there as well.
World’s dominant businesses
Using data from 2006-2009, Prof Nolan concludes that the number of globally dominant businesses in the manufacture of large commercial aircraft and carbonated drinks was two; of mobile telecommunications infrastructure and smart phones, just three; of beer, elevators, heavy-duty trucks and personal computers, four; of digital cameras, six; and of motor vehicles and pharmaceuticals, 10. In these cases, dominant businesses supplied between half and all of the world market.
Similar degrees of concentration have emerged, after consolidation, in many industries. Much the same concentration can be seen among component suppliers.
Look at aircraft. The world has three dominant suppliers of engines, two of brakes, three of tyres, two of seats, one supplier of lavatory systems and one of wiring.
In the motor industries, as well as information technology, beverages and many others, the world has just a few dominant suppliers of the essential components.
We can now see the organisation of global production and distribution under the aegis of the integrator company. Such a business “typically possesses some combination of a number of key attributes, among them the capability to raise finance for large new projects and the resources necessary to fund a high level of research and development spending to sustain technological leadership, to develop a global brand, to invest in state-of-the-art information technology and to attract the best human resources”.
Moreover, “one hundred giant firms, all from the high-income countries, account for over three-fifths of the total R&D expenditure among the world’s top 1,400 companies.
Age of capitalist globalisation
They are the foundation of the world’s technical progress in the era of capitalist globalisation.” These companies have invested hugely across borders, not least in China.
In the process, they are losing national characteristics and loyalties. This creates growing tension, as governments find “their” companies ever harder to tax or regulate. Nevertheless, the companies still retain national characteristics and remain rooted in national cultures.