Since the days of the Yankee Clipper ships, American traders in East Asia have dreamed of selling shirts for millions of Chinese backs, and with the purge of four allegedly anti-trade leaders in Peking, talk of a boom in business with China has begun again.
But economists and businessmen here argue that the careful planners now in charge in Peking are unlikely to allow any sudden or dramatic changes. The removal of what the Chinese call the "Gang of Four" led by Mao Tsu-tung's widow, Chiang Ching, is expected to help revive China's limping trade with the West. But the Chinese are not about to take the world's markets by storm.
"Does China want to be a major trading nation?" asks one expert here. "The answer is unequivocably no."
Instead, Chinese buyers are expected to fan out in search of contracts for purchase of more synthetic fiber, fertilizer and plastics plants machinery, technical information and lumber that would bring a healthy jump in their imports in about two years. Although handicapped by the lack of most favored-nation rates for Chinese good sold to the United Staes, American firms may get some of this business, but their chances will improve considerably if Washington and Peking normalize relations.
In return, the Chinese are expected to be selling more foodstuffs, handicrafts, chemicals, nonferrous metals and particulary textiles like carpets to American and other western buyers to help pay for their new plants.
It is likely to be slow and steady process for a nation that appears determined to be as self sufficient as possible and trade only to make a political point or to acquire modern equipment it cannot easily make itself.
It is also uncertain whether the Chinese will accelerate exports of their new oil resources rapidly, and thus wield greater influence in an oil-starved world. A recent article in the Chinese press hit hard at Chiang Ching's efforts to stymie oil sales abroad, and a report from Japan says the Chinese have offered to more than double their oil exports to Tokyo to a total of 15 million metric tons. But the Japanese may not be willing to buy that much oil, given its heavy wax content. The Chinese also are emphasizing a farm mechanization program that will use up much of its oil surplus, and Peking noted in a recent official article that oil exports "account for only a very small fraction of the country's total output."
The Chinese could start selling a lot of oil suddenly if they needed to win friends during a worl political crisis, but economists here expect most of the oil to stay home for now. The same goes for coal, which the Chinese have been selling to Japan but which they now need for their sluggish steel industry since the coal-rich mines of Tangshan have been hurt by July's earthquake.
Although the "gang of four" are accused of opposing the basic Chinese policy on foreign trade, it appears they were more of an annoyance than a real blow to exports and imports. By launching attacks on trade officials, they probably created uncertainties that slowed negotiations.
A recent officials radio broadcast aired the complaints of the Kwangtung Foreign Trade Bureau, which has much to do with the semiannual Canton trade fairs. It said the four radicals "slandered the foreign trade staff and workers as "thinking and talking only about U.S. dollars.'" They created "confusion" in the preparation of popular traditional handicraft export items by saying "not even a dragon or a phoenix is allowed to be exported" or that "the amiable-looking dragons and tigers may be exported, but not the fierce-looking ones."
The radicals accused their political opponents of relying too much on foreign technology to build China's industry. The new official response to that, in an article in the People's Daily, streses that the new Chinese administration of Chairman Hua Kuo-Feng will remain very selective in what it buys from the West. "Stressing self reliance does not mean that we advocate a 'close-door' policy," the article said, "but we learn from the good experience and advanced science and technology of other countries and absort them for our own use, discarding the dross and selecting the essential, so as to develop things of our own, establish an independent, comprehensive modern industrial system and strengthen the material basis of the dictatorship of the proletariat."
So long as diplomatic negotiations between te United States and China are stalled, American businessmen are liekly to find the Chinese doing much of their shopping for modern techniques and equipment in Europe. Where and Americans look significantly better in price and technique, such as in oil and mining euqipment, they will get the contracts "but in marginal situations where the Chinese can take an American system or leave it, they'll leave it," one analyst said.
Perhaps as much, if not more, of a drag on Chinese trade than the "gang of four" has been traditional Chinese reluctance to borrow heavily to finance purchases. This conservative policy is thought to be central to the philosophy of Vice Premier Li Hsien Nien, now apparently the undisputed master of China's financial and trade decisions.
A rash of plant purchases in 1973 and 1974 has cut Chinese hard currency and gold reserves in half to about $1.5 billion, and caused the Chinese to rein in trade this year. Some Western analysts suggest that Chinese imports this year from the non-Communist nations will drop as much as 11 per cent, with total exports measuring abotu $5.4 billion and imports slightly more.
Imports from the United States are down sharply to about $200 million this year with Chinese decisions to cut their grain requirements. Exports are about the same.
Western economists argue that this indicates Chinese trade can go no where but up and that the Chinese are at the end of a traditional lull as they have absorbed the huge industrial plant purchases they made in 1974. The Kellogg fertilizer plants purchased from the United States, for instance, are just coming on line, gradually freeing Chineses technicians and supervisors trained in such construction work to take on new projects should the Chinese, as expected, make more plant purchases in a year.
Nicholas H. Ludlow, editor of the U.S. China Business Review, said facilities for display of trade goods are going up in several parts of China, indicating a desire to increase the number of regional fairs open to foreign businessmen. "In the past 18 months, the Chinese have been gearing up for a national export effort," he said after a two-week tour of China in November. "At the same time, their balance of payments has been coming into the black. Things are really going to pick up next year."