Perspective, Please, on China

The New York Times added to the unstoppable-China meta-narrative over the weekend with an interesting report from the country’s industrial heartland.

The headline really sets the tone of this one—“Defying Global Slump, China Has Labor Shortage”—and the piece goes on to detail the signing bonuses and raises being offered to unskilled factory workers, all while their American peers wait in the unemployment line.

The immediate cause of the shortage is that millions of migrant workers who traveled home for the long lunar New Year earlier this month are not returning to the coast. Thanks to a half-trillion-dollar government stimulus program, jobs are being created in the interior.

But many economists say the recent global downturn also obscured a longer-term trend: China has drained its once vast reserves of unemployed workers in rural areas and is running out of fresh laborers for its factories.

Dean Baker raises a caution on the piece, calling the shifting of workers it describes “a normal process in a growing economy.”

We’d just note that once a meta-press-narrative gets rolling, it tends to take on a life of its own, for a lot of reasons. Intra-newsroom dynamics play a role. It’s just easier to get a story in the paper that fits the meta-narrative than one that pushes against it. The former are the kinds of stories that, once pitched, make an editor’s head nod up and down like a bobble-head doll.

Tom Wolfe a long time ago wrote wisely about the “totem” newspaper:

A totem newspaper is the kind people don’t really buy to read but just to have, physically, because they know it supports their own outlook on life.

All of this doesn’t make the Times wrong on this one. But it’s something to think about when reading stories that fall into the China-as-juggernaut category.

The Washington Post helpfully raises even more cautions on the whole China-juggernaut thing, with an Outlook piece by Steven Mufson and John Pomfret, both former Post bureau chiefs in Beijing.

Having lived in China during the past two decades, we have witnessed and chronicled its remarkable economic and social transformation. But the notion that China poses an imminent threat to all aspects of American life reveals more about us than it does about China and its capabilities. The enthusiasm with which our politicians and pundits manufacture Chinese straw men points more to unease at home than to success inside the Great Wall.

The piece is a nice antidote to the usual coverage of China. And it contains a important warning:

“We have completely lost perspective on what constitutes reality in China today,” said Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There is a lot that is incredible about China’s economic story, but there is as much that is not working well on both the political and economic fronts. We need to understand the nuances of this story — on China’s innovation, renewables, economic growth, etc. — to ensure that all the hype from Beijing, and from our own media and politicians, doesn’t lead us to skew our own policy.”

These nuances haven’t gone entirely unnoticed. Indeed, the Times itself reported in January that Jim Chanos, the contrarian investor par excellence, has been predicting a crash in China. But with a story this big, unconventional views surely deserve more attention.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at