Shenzhen’s experience might have some lessons for Trump

Economy November 23, 2016 01:00


CURRENTLY in Thailand, it is a very sad period, as our beloved King has passed away. His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej would have turned 89 on December 5. 

People across the country celebrated the 70th year of his accession to the throne this year. During his reign he worked on a lot of successful projects, including improving the living conditions of his subjects, especially those in the remote rural areas, with more than 3,000 development projects initiated by the King and implemented throughout the country. 

We cannot deny that his Majesty the King is one of the major reasons Thailand has been able to develop more successfully than other countries.

Last month, the author had a chance to make an academic presentation about infrastructure topics in Shenzhen, China. I had not been to China for many years, and I found that this city had grown very fast. Actually, Shenzhen was one of the fastest-growing cities in the world during the 1990s and 2000s. 

Starting from a small fishing town – Shenzhen is located on the southern tip of the Chinese mainland and on the east bank of the Pearl River, neighbouring Hong Kong – it has grown into a modern metropolis. 

It became China’s first special economic zone in 1980. The city now is the high-tech and manufacturing hub of southern China, and home to the world’s third-busiest container port and the fourth-busiest airport on the Chinese mainland.

In the meantime, another part of the world with a very influential economy, the United States, just elected a new president, Donald Trump. His campaign reminded me of the old days in 2004, when I was finishing up my PhD in the US. There was a famous TV show called “The Apprentice” that judged the business skills of a group of contestants. Episodes ended with the host eliminating the poorest contributor from the competition, with the words “You’re fired.” And, yes, this was spoken by Trump. 

On that show, businesspeople would vie for the show’s prize, a one-year US$250,000 starting contract to run one of Donald Trump’s companies. 

I feel that he is a very talented world-class businessman. However, in the reality of national policy, I doubt that being president will be the same as running his own company.

It may not be the same as saying “You’re fired.” 

One of the policies he has advertised, international trade protectionism, might not be the first best idea, as all economists around the world, and from real experience, like Shenzhen’s for example, know that trade creates more prosperity, more specialisation and more efficient use of the world’s resources. One country can consume products that it cannot produce itself and can export the commodities of which it has an excess.

I admit that some trade theorists have backed away from the assumption of constant returns, and some argue that using protectionist measures to build up a huge industrial base in certain industries will then allow those sectors to dominate the world market. 

Nevertheless, when one country wants to protect trade too much, for sure, its trading partners can do the same. The world is working on making trade fairer, but overly strict protectionism may not be a good idea in this regard. 

One thing I can expect is that this will not be an easy road for the new president, especially when the US is well known as one of the world’s largest consumers of all products from across the world, and is the land of the melting pot.

Apirada Chinprateep PhD is assistant professor at the School of Development Economics, National Institute of Development Administration.