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Resisting pressure, China keeps currency controls as hedge against 'chaos'
( 2003-09-07 11:11) (AP)

With the American economy in the doldrums and a presidential election around the corner, another Republican US administration has again unleashed its arsenal of trade-war rhetoric.

During the Reagan administration, the adversary was Japan. This time, two decades later, it's China. And so far, Beijing is not backing down _ despite possible retaliation over China's US$103 billion trade surplus with the United States.

Critics accuse Beijing of keeping the value of the its currency, the yuan, at an artificially low level that unfairly boosts Chinese exports by making them cheaper even as those exports cut into American jobs.

``We don't think we are being treated fairly when a currency is controlled by the government,'' US President George W. Bush said Thursday, urging Beijing to let the yuan trade freely on world markets.

``We expect our trading partners to treat our people fairly - our producers and workers and farmers and manufacturers,'' Bush said in comments aired on CNBC.

The yuan - also known as the renminbi, or ``people's money'' - has traded within a narrow range of around 8.28 yuan per US dollar since 1994.

During a visit last week, US Treasury Secretary John Snow's demand for quicker liberalization won only a token pledge from Beijing to continue gradually loosening the controls it says are needed to keep its economy growing and its debt-laden banks from collapsing.

``China will not change its currency policy for the foreseeable future,'' Andy Xie, the chief Asia economist for Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong, wrote in a report summarizing the outcome of the talks. ``The answer is NO, in case you didn't get it.''

Asian financial chiefs meeting in Thailand backed China in rejecting US demands for fully floating the yuan, announcing Friday in a communique that ``there is no single exchange rate regime that suits all economies at all times.''

China's neighbors are acutely aware of how much their economies have benefited in recent years from soaring demand from fast-growing China for their exports.

``They would have been in real trouble if not for China's growth engine,'' says Bill Overholt, Asia policy chair at Rand Corp. ``Exports to China have been keeping the rest of the region afloat while demand was weak in the United States and Europe.''

During the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, China's decision to keep its exchange rate steady won kudos from Washington as well as the rest of Asia. Now, many economists question whether a rise in the yuan's value would actually salvage many US jobs.

With a typical Chinese factory worker making about US$30 a month, about the rate an American car repair shop might charge for an hour's work, jobs already shifted overseas are unlikely to move back.

``All the manufacturers can just move 100 kilometers (60 miles) further inland, to where labor costs are that much cheaper,'' says Richard Koo, chief economist at the Nomura Research Institute in Tokyo. Or they might shift production to another developing country, such as India or the Philippines.

By opening wider and faster to foreign investment than Japan, Beijing managed to sidestep US criticism over its growing trade surplus - until recently.

A commentary published Friday in the online version of the People's Daily, noted that more than half of China's exports are produced by foreign-invested companies.

``China does not engage only in export without import. We have imported large numbers of Boeing airplanes and Ford motor vehicles, but we have never complained that they have seized our 'rice bowls,''' said the commentary.

The newspaper accused Bush of using the yuan issue as a ``trump card'' to win votes in heavy manufacturing states like Ohio and Indiana.

Angering Washington might result in trade sanctions, but China's bigger priority is fending off expectations that the yuan might be revalued - rumors that could impact China's economy even more than action by the United States.

The central bank recently announced steps to tighten bank lending and curb excess money supply to relieve the pressures that could ignite inflation. It blamed speculation over a possible rise in the yuan's value for an influx of up to US$30 billion into the country.

``From the point of view of discouraging hot money speculation, it is good to emphasize on keeping foreign exchange rate steady,'' Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the People's Bank of China, told the state-run newspaper Financial News.

Instead of adjusting the yuan, China has promised to lift various restrictions on access to foreign exchange - limits that seem redundant now that China's foreign exchange reserves have ballooned to US$346.5 billion.

Other immediate priorities for Beijing's government include meeting market-opening commitments that World Trade Organization membership requires, bringing chaotic financial markets to heel and preventing shaky banks from succumbing to a sea of bad loans. Even more immediate is the need to provide jobs for tens of millions of laid-off workers and underemployed farmers.

Tinkering with the exchange rate isn't high on the list.

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