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You Talk,I Talk…

Talking to China

Published: May 7, 2011

China has vowed to smooth relations with the United States. Since June, it has allowed its artificially cheap currency to rise about 5 percent against the dollar. Its huge trade surplus — a drag on global growth — has shrunk by half since its 2007 peak. During a January visit to Washington, President Hu Jintao promised to end software piracy by government agencies and procurement policies that discriminate against foreign companies. He even admitted that China had to make progress on human rights.

It still has a long way to go — to win global respect or the trust and respect of its own people. When the Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, and the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, meet their Chinese counterparts for their “Strategic and Economic Dialogue” this week, they need to deliver that message loud and clear.

China’s human rights record has gotten worse, as its autocrats nervously watch the Middle East uprisings. Gary Locke, the commerce secretary, who is President Obama’s choice to be the next ambassador to China, rightly criticized Beijing last week for failing to make good on commitments to level the playing field for foreign firms.

The list of complaints is long: 80 percent of the computer software in China is counterfeit. Beijing just published a new investment catalog that keeps a long list of industries off limits for American firms. It changed the investment vetting process to allow Chinese companies to recommend barring acquisitions by foreign rivals. It has done nothing to reduce the enormous subsidies in the form of cheap credit to favored state-owned firms.

In general, we agree with the Obama administration’s patient yet persistent attempts to persuade China to address these economic distortions. Punitive legislation, like that often threatened by Congress, would only set off a destructive trade war. But Beijing’s intrinsic conservatism has only gotten worse as the top leadership prepares for Mr. Hu to step down next year. With the world economy gradually on the mend, China’s trade surplus could explode again and threaten a more long-lasting recovery.

The Obama administration must use whatever tools it has to urge China forward. It can keep reminding Beijing that reform is in China’s own interest. Indeed, allowing its currency to rise faster would be the most effective way to head off inflation that is threatening the living standards of ordinary Chinese. If that logic does not change any minds, Washington has other leverage. China particularly covets a bilateral investment agreement that would ease the path for Chinese firms in the United States. It wants fewer restrictions on American technology exports.

The Obama administration must make clear that these things can happen only if China keeps its promises. If it wants to be treated as a regular market economy, it must behave like one.

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