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Written By: - Date published: 9:40 am, March 13th, 2012 - 19 comments
Categories: business, International, overseas investment - Tags:

There’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over Pengxin Shanghai’s attempt to buy the Crafar farms. Justified too. I want to take a step back (fuck, I’m starting to talk like Key) and look at the strategy that China is executing and the imperatives behind it.

To perpetuate itself, any organism needs to expend effort and resources on securing access to the resources it needs to function. I’m hardly the first to note that a human society – just a collection of organisms, after all, behaves in much the same way. A powerful nation, or more accurately the governing elite of that nation, to grow and maintain its power, needs to secure access to the resources that enable it to do so. Chiefly – food, energy (in order, the world’s chief energy sources are – oil, coal, gas, nuclear, and hydro), and metals.

China obviously wants to grow. A) because that’s what States do, just like populations of any organism will grow if they can and B) because if China doesn’t grow, or if growth even drops to what we would regard as ‘normal’ levels, then the governing elite fears there will be revolution from the vast mass of people who will suddenly find the tide’s not rising any more and they’re stuck in a leaky dinghy while a few comrades are riding in big yachts.

China knows that is attempting to grow in a resource-constrained world. The oil is running out, the water is running out, the arable land is running out, the ores are running out, soon the coal and gas will be running out too, while the climate is changing and the population keeps growing in what is probably the biggest overshoot in the history of life on Earth. Peak everything is upon us. Rightwing morons can deny that if they want, a State that wants to perpetuate and grow its power can’t (the US faces the problem that it wants to do the latter but is run by the former).

So, what does China do?

The first instinct, that goes back to long, long before we were apes is to use physical force, violence, military power. But there’s already a big old silverback who has got that game all wrapped up. China is not wasting a whole lot of effort on matching the US militarily, just yet.

What China does have though, is $3 trillion US in foreign reserves which it accumulated as part of its strategy of running an undervalued currency to makes its exports more competitive and corner world manufacturing. Two-thirds of those assets are held in US dollar dominated bonds and other US assets. With the US now pursuing a beggar thy neighbour strategy of printing money to cause inflation and devalue the US-dollar debt of its debtors, China has good reason to want to convert as much of that cash as it can into hard assets.

So, China has two reasons to buy lots of things: it’s getting a low or negative return on holding US dollars and it needs to secure its resource chain to ensure its power in an increasingly resource-constrained future. Both of those are reasons to accept low rates of return, which is just the finance way of saying ‘think a long way into the future, something that even Pengxin’s New Zealand shill says is part of the Chinese national psyche (maybe its something to do with having a 4,500 year history too, Iran has the same outlook and claims the same lengthy history as a civilisation – settler states like the US and NZ just don’t seem to get how to think long-term).

And the great thing about having more money than you know what to do with and being willing to accept lower rates of return than Western corporations is you can outbid them every time. This is happening around the world with the Chinese Investment Corporation and dozens of major Chinese corporates which are, of course, tightly government-linked (to be major in a country where all the land is government-owned and executives get executed if they displease the authorities, of course you have to be government-linked) buying up big chunks of energy reserves, mineral reserves, political capital with third world rulers, and, yes, farms. All of this is funded with soft loans, sometimes to the Chinese corporates, sometimes to the local rulers, who also find China is a source of aid dollars that doesn’t attach those pesky good governance conditions that the West insists upon.

China’s strategy is optimal. It’s what any smart rulers would do in China’s situation. It’s allowing China to secure preferential access to resources and ruling elites around the world, ensuring its future power. In a strategic blink of an eye, China has gone from being that cheap country where crap gets made to being the world power house that’s more and more dedicating the run of play. It happened while the neoliberals were congratulating themselves on ‘solving’ inflation when all they had done was rip up our manufacturing and send it to China, which made cheaper products, which we bought with money borrowed from China while telling ourselves we were getting richer. It’s the most impressive, and relatively blood-free, rise of a world power ever. And it’s contributing to the astounding collapse in US hegemony (wasting a trillion dollars in the Middle East fighting several bunches of amateurs with AKs to bloody draws helped too).

But that doesn’t mean New Zealand has to just go along with it.

We’ve got our own interests to look out for. Chief of which is making sure that the wealth we produce is enjoyed by us. That means keeping our profits here, not acting like a bunch of yokels – selling the farm to the first out of towner with a big wad of cash who shows up and then, once we’ve drunk our ‘profits’, finding ourselves working for his gain forever.

I don’t care about the details of the overseas investment regime, as long as it makes sure we don’t go selling the base of our country’s economy for a bit more cash up front now. Our well-watered, fertile fields are our ace in the hole. They’re only going to become more profitable in the future. Selling them for a few pieces of soft-loan silver would be moronic.

19 comments on “China”

  1. thatguynz 1

    Well Michael, I was one of the first to criticise your previous pieces on Syria etc, but in this case I need to give credit where credit is due. 
    This piece seems to be a well written, well justified narrative that doesn’t just follow the “xenophobic” tripe that the MSM have used around China’s investment goals and its flow through effect in NZ – a la Crafar farms etc.
    Nicely done.

  2. Bill 2

    In no particular order…

    1. China is not the country that produces cheap crap. China is the country that western corporations take advantage of to produce cheap crap.

    2. China has just dropped its growth forecast and is awash with debt. It ain’t no powerhouse.

    3.Where does the idea come from that economic growth has benefited Chinese people in general? As per usual, economic growth has impoverished the majority and made their situation more insecure while at the same time enriching the minority. Therefore, fear of a revolution coming off the back of any drop in growth just doesn’t add up.

    4. This idea of growth or expansion as a natural and inevitable phenomena is utterly wrongheaded. It simply results from following the rules of the economic environment that we’ve constructed.

    5. The reductionist analytical appeal to machoism (talk of silverbacks, ‘first instincts’ and the contention that everybody, in this case China, always aspires to beat their chest and ‘take on’ the big fulla) is lamentable on a number of levels.

    6. The west just does not insist on ‘pesky good governance’ from anyone…you need a list of democratically elected governments overthrown by the west or dictators installed by or supported by the west?

    edit. Missed the bit about ‘displeasing’ the authorities = execution. wtf?

    • Blighty 2.1

      Bill. I’m not sure where you get the idea that Michael is defending any of these things, just stating them as fact.

      1. China was the country that took over cheap, bulk manufacturing
      2. China is the lynchpin of world economic growth and is sitting on the world’s largest foreign currency reserves
      3. Who says growth has benefited the masses greatly? Of course its been concentrated in the rich but while growth is still strong people can be fooled into thinking that their future is brighter, when growth slows they see they’re still poor and a few are rich. Hell, why do you think that growth as been the overriding priority of Western governments since the Great Depression?
      4. That’s the way countries behave. Doesn’t mean it’s right.
      5. That’s the way countries behave. Doesn’t mean it’s right.
      6. You need to do some basic research on aid programmes. Countries like NZ don’t just give money away, they insist on transparent and accountable processes for the spending of that aid, which isn’t convenient for a lot of rulers who want to use that money for political purposes. China doesn’t impose such restrictions.

      China does execute executives. I would think that it’s obvious that in a military dictatorship, if you’re going to become a powerful business player and survive long, you’re going to have good friends in the government.

      • Bill 2.1.1

        His ‘facts’ are inaccurate, Blighty. But you just went right on ahead and repeated them or underscored the assertions that flowed from them. Guess you didn’t really read the (admittedly brief) points I was making.

        Lets just pick up on one of those (you can give the other points a closer read at your leisure and, if you like, actually answer to or comment on the points made)

        Michael asserted that executives were executed for ‘displeasing the authorities’. I’d like some evidence of that. You obviously don’t and merely assert in defense of Michaels assertion that China executes executives. I don’t dispute that. China has capital punishment and uses it. But does it execute executives merely becasue thay are a source of ‘displeasure’?! Michael is suggesting a childish characature of China as a place presided over by a ‘Red Queen’ who issues orders for decapitation on a grumpy whim ffs. And you’re okay with that?

        • Blighty

          I’m not OK with the Chinese government doing that, but the reality is that in military dictatorships that do regularly execute executives then you’re going to be safer if you keep in the good books of the authorities.

    • Draco T Bastard 2.2

      As per usual, economic growth has impoverished the majority and made their situation more insecure while at the same time enriching the minority.

      It’s not economic growth that’s done that but capitalism.

  3. Rich 3

    Isn’t that what the British did before 1973? Maintained NZ as an offshore farm to provide security of food supplies and a strategic outpost?

    Until they realised that:
    – food supplies that needed to be shipped round the world weren’t very secure
    – the Northern Antarctic (or SW Pacific, if you prefer) wasn’t very strategic
    – it was cheaper to source food locally, or on the global market

    (and that they needed to join the EU to slow their economic decline)

    I actually think that the Chinese leadership don’t give a fuck about dairy supplies. Chinese people traditionally don’t even drink the stuff – it’s a recent fad. A bit like the NZ government worrying about how we source tofu.

    I suspect it’s a purely business thing – they reckon that by owning the whole supply chain they can undercut Fonterra.

  4. insider 4

    The chinese govt has far more important things going on than to worry about the minor investment plans of a moderate sized company like SP. Sure they are encouraging investment and development, but what country doesn’t? To imply it is all part of a master plan ignores the far more likely explanation that SP is a private company looking to make a buck to complement something it already does.

    This post is really jsut a modern updating of the manipulative but inscrutable oriental stereotype. If I were Chinese, I’d probably be offended by its oversimplistic racial overtones.

    • Bill 4.1

      This post is really jsut a modern updating of the manipulative but inscrutable oriental stereotype


    • lprent 4.2

      Umm in that case you should probably lay a complaint against The Economist (which I happen to read each week), who have been stating the same precepts about Chinese offshore investment in their pages for much of the last five years. They have also been pointing to the strategies the the Chinese government has been using to control savings and sequester investment capital as their economy grows.

      It isn’t exactly rocket science. About the only thing of any real change recently is that the US has been steadily getting better at freefalling their currency as they play soldier and have exercise their sovereign right to have test the limits of partisan deficit creation.

      Where have you been for the last decade or so?

    • Blighty 4.3

      “The chinese govt has far more important things going on than to worry about the minor investment plans of a moderate sized company like SP”

      I’m sure the Chinese government can walk and chew gum.

      Of course China has a strategy of buying up crucial assets around the world. It’s what you would do in their shoes and it’s what is self-evidently happening. At the pointy end of that strategy is numerous relatively small purchases and investments. There’s no racism in that. Michael calls their strategy ‘optimal’ – hardly seems critical.

  5. RedLogix 5

    The entire notion of empire has reached it’s used by date. Time to discredit and end this ancient practise. I don’t care if it’s an English, American or Chinese hegemony… it no longer has a place in the modern world.

    John Michael Greer’s last two posts are well worth reading in conjunction with the OP.



    Imperial rhetoric down through the centuries normally includes the claim that the imperial power only takes a modest fraction of the annual production of wealth from its subject nations, and provides services such as peace, good government, and trade relations that more than make up for the cost. This is hogwash—popular hogwash, at least among those who profit from empire, but hogwash nonetheless. Historically speaking, the longer an empire lasts, the poorer its subject nations normally get, and the harder the empire’s tame intellectuals have to work to invent explanations for that impoverishment that don’t include the reasons that matter. Consider the vast amount of rhetorical energy expended by English intellectuals in the 19th century, for example, to find reasons for Ireland’s grinding poverty other than England’s systematic expropriation of every scrap of Irish wealth that wasn’t too firmly nailed down.

    • Draco T Bastard 5.1

      Historically speaking, the longer an empire lasts, the poorer its subject nations normally get, and the harder the empire’s tame intellectuals have to work to invent explanations for that impoverishment that don’t include the reasons that matter.

      And matches exactly what’s happening with NZ.

  6. newsense 6

    so-what’s our play?

    • RedLogix 6.1

      It’s much the same question Maori were asking themselves 160 years ago.

      On one hand they could see the legal, technical and economic imperative of hooking up with the global super-power of the day, Great Britain. There was much to be gained.

      On the other hand there were those who could foresee what the continued and uncontrolled arrival of tens of thousands of colonists would inevitably mean in terms of their own cultural and economic sovereignty.

      Maybe we could consider what Maori might have done differently.

  7. Born red 7

    [Banned under a previous handle…RL]

  8. Colonial Viper 8

    China is not constrained by the neoliberal/neoconservative political economics that so much of the western world has fallen sway under.

    The bad news for them: the US still controls the entire world’s sea lanes, and having gas deals with Australia, oil deals with Brazil and milk deals with NZ doesn’t mean fuck all in the final analysis when that is the case.

  9. I enjoyed the article. It was balanced and mentioned home truths that need to be trotted out on a regular basis so that people understand why they exist.

    That said, China has its problems, and they are substantial ones. For example:

    1) A TIME magazine article a few weeks ago mentioned that they are building vast towns in the mountainous interior near Mongolia, to prop up what looks like a false economy. It is false in that no one is moving to them; they are costing billions that could be spent on other things and leave a huge environmental footprint.

    2) It has growing debt, despite annual reports of another 8-10% increase in it’s defence budget – hasn’t been a year since the mid 1990’s when this increase did not happen.

    3) It can’t keep – despite best efforts to the contrary – 1.4 billion people in check on the internet. It is not that all of them ARE on the internet, but the portion of the population that currently is, is constantly testing what human rights activists call the “Great Firewall of China”. Often they get suppressed, arrested and locked up, but it doesn’t stop them trying.

    4) Corruption and inefficient practice is entrenched at all levels. Not very surprising in a command society that affords few if any legal rights to its citizens.

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