For loyal viewers of China Central Television, there was no escaping the fifth anniversary of China's entry into the WTO. A full 16 hours of WTO-themed programming was provided by the state-run broadcaster, which included coverage of a celebratory gala held in the Great Hall of the People.
For the most part, China's full integration into global trade flows has been resoundingly positive. The country's economic output has nearly doubled to US$2 trillion and, with exports rising by an average of 29% per year since WTO entry, China's trade as a percentage of its GDP has shot from 44% in 2001 to 72% today. Used foreign investment has increased 28% to around US$60 billion a year over the same period.
In the process, China has reduced average tariffs on goods from 14.8% to 9.1%, while more than 3,000 regulations have been axed or comprehensively reworked.
Sector by sector, foreign firms have seen an easing in the restrictions imposed on their business in China.
Ticking off where China has and hasn't met the letter, or the spirit, of its WTO accession obligations has become something of a sport for industry watchers. Some – tariff reductions, for example – have been relatively painless to implement. But others have proved difficult, particularly those dependent on a degree of enforcement that could easily be derailed by uncooperative local officials or insufficient legal provisions.
As a result, it is issues such as intellectual property that remain high on Western trade partners' lists of complaints.
If 2001 was when it all really began, the last couple of years have seen the world begin to appreciate that a fully integrated China means more than just cheap goods on shop shelves.
The creed of globalization that is the WTO's lifeblood flows both ways. This has cost jobs and created angst in the West.
The number of anti-dumping cases against China has accelerated since 2001, with the country now accounting for one-third of global cases. At times, these have evolved into full-scale trade spats. China yells its WTO rights and the US and EU point to a subsidizing effect on exports of an undervalued yuan that no amount of WTO legislation can account for.
These situations are often described as symptoms of a world struggling to come to terms with the emergence of an economy the size of China. With protectionist sentiment brewing in Washington, it is to be hoped that this struggle won't be too prolonged or too bloody.
China has come a long way in five years but the full course of this journey is nowhere near run. Costs, benefits and necessary compromises wait for all those involved.
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