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How WTO membership made China the workshop of the world

China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) a decade ago primed it for high-speed growth. Other countries have seen benefits as well – but say China has also become adept at getting around the rules.

A visitor at the China Import and Export Fair in Guangzhou (once known as Canton) checked out hair dryers this fall. Declining demand for consumer goods in the US and Europe may hurt China’s export-driven economy.

Bobby Yip/Reuters

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Ten years ago this week, when China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) and opened its economy to the world, many Chinese commentators warned that the country was "dancing with wolves," laying itself bare to attack by ravenous competitors in a foolhardy and possibly fatal misstep.

Today, the tables have turned. "Those who dance with wolves," opined an editorial in Monday's issue of the People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's official organ, "can show a hero's mettle."

Indeed, China has become the workshop of the world, while whole industries have disappeared from America and Europe. Membership in the WTO, which sets global rules for trade and investment, has proved to be an unmitigated success for China, priming the economy for its fastest-ever 10 years of growth. Foreign businessmen, though, see a more nuanced picture.

"They've figured out how to get around the rules," says James McGregor, senior counselor with the APCO business consultancy in Beijing. "The state-capitalist system they have developed is incompatible with much of the WTO structure."

It is hard to imagine the world economy today without China in the WTO, if only because its membership reflects the fact that "China can't leave the world, and the world needs China," as deputy Commerce Minister Yu Jinhua said last month.

The WTO has "deeply integrated China into global production networks," says Scott Kennedy, who heads Indiana University's Research Center for Chinese Politics and Business. "We'd have seen a very different pattern of globalization if China had not been in [it]."


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