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Chinese traditional dragon dance. Credit: TPG via ZUMA Press

Taking on China: how the West can save free trade

Last year, I attended an event in Brussels where two sides argued over the future of global trade policy. The two positions represented were that of the EU and the US and, not long into the discussion, it became clear that although they were taking very different approach, they were both grappling with the same problem: China.

China is now the world’s biggest exporter and its second biggest economy. Its quasi-communist, state capitalist system is massively distorting global trade. When Donald Trump was elected, he promised to put a stop to these distortions. Unfortunately, his main tactic for doing so seems to involve wading into trade war with everyone. Watching this, as a supporter of free trade, I bristled. “Who is this madman intent on taking us back to the 1930s?” I thought.

China is breaking the rules of global trade and the West has been far too weak about it for far too long

In order to make this documentary, I had to look into the issue far more closely. I found that some of my criticisms were valid: Trump has managed to alienate everyone who could be a potential ally and thereby seriously reduced his likelihood of success. On the fundamental issue, however, I had to concede: Trump has a point. China is breaking the rules of global trade and the West has been far too weak about it for far too long.

To explain why this matters and what we should do about it, I spoke to voices on both sides. I heard from supporters of Trump’s approach, such as Florida senator Marco Rubio and Clyde Prestowitz, the former US commerce secretary under Ronald Reagan. I obtained an interview with AMSC, one of the only companies in the world willing to talk openly about how its Chinese business partner’s theft of its technology almost tipped the company into bankruptcy.

China and global trade: the series

Taking on China: how the West can save free trade

By Various

But I also spoke to those who shared my instincts for free trade and openness. I interviewed David Willetts, the former UK universities minister now leading a Sino-British investment fund, and a senior manager at Imagination Technologies, an innovative British firm that was saved from being broken up when Chinese investors bought the company.

To hear my conclusions, listen here to “Taking on China: how the West can save free trade”.