Charlene Barshefsky might know more about the United
States’s trade relationship with China than any other
American lawyer. As the former U.S. trade representative
during President Bill Clinton’s second term, Barshefsky
helped design the government’s strategy for winning concessions from China during negotiations over its accession
to the World Trade Organization in 2001. Today, Barshefsky
is a senior international partner in the Washington, D.C.,
office of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.
On the tenth anniversary of China’s entry into the WTO, we
checked in with Barshefsky to get the mood from Beijing.
BY DEBRA BRUNO
Q What’s the most significant change in China now?
A I think the most exciting thing is imply this extraordinary reemergence of China, which has shifted the
global economy substantially toward
Asia and toward China as the productive
hub of Asia, and toward China as one
of the major agenda-setters—a role that
had been unquestionably Japan’s—and
toward a China that is becoming increasingly muscular and aggressive and determined. There are no historic parallels.
Q Will China continue to grow as fast as it has been growing?
A I don’t think the trajectory will be linear, but I don’t see any particular roadblocks to its continued economic
success. This is an economy on fire, but
more pointedly, this is a population on
fire. This year is especially exciting because it is the tenth anniversary of China’s accession to the WTO.
Q Did you imagine this pace when China joined the WTO?
A I had a sense that joining the WTO would be economically significant for China. But the growth rates,
the size of the growth rates, and the
ensuing muscularity all happened far
faster than I thought.
Q What do you mean by the word “muscularity”?
A This is a China much more self- confident, somewhat self-satisfied,
and willing to express its views regard-
less of the views of others.
Q How key was the WTO to transforming the business
environment in China?
A The WTO accession was an enor- mous factor. But there were other
factors that preceded WTO accession.
Internal economic reforms began in
the late seventies and accelerated in the
eighties with decollectivization at the
farm level, with some labor mobility, with
the creation of trade zones, and with the
introduction of pilot projects that tested
various forms of economic liberalization.
There was an ethos that emerged when
Deng Xiaoping led the country, that it
was important for an individual to earn
a living and that capital was good. Part
of WTO accession expanded the reforms
and broadened them quite radically, and
forced their implementation. In addition,
because the country’s economy was vastly state-controlled, the WTO opened up
an enormous array of sectors to international trade. And it created thousands of
pages of rules and introduced them in a
safe way, essentially all at the same time,
plus or minus five years.
Q China seems to be making some changes in its attitude toward the
rule of law. For instance, there have
been recent reports that the National
People’s Congress plans to legalize de-
tentions, such as the secret detention
of the artist Ai Weiwei, which had pre-
viously been done in violation of exist-
ing laws. What’s your take on that?
A I think China has made progress on its rule of law training, but I
think the decision makers in China re-
main highly idiosyncratic. There is often
insufficient means of redress. It’s a sig-
nificant challenge for business. I don’t
think China has gone back per se, but
there is a growing concern about in-
creased state intervention in business.
The level of interference is greater, and
in that sense some people believe that
China has backslid a bit. I think China
is certainly more aggressive and muscu-
lar, and it does demonstrate that in vari-
ous ways, including with foreign busi-
nesses—such as increasing demands for
Q You’ve previously said that you’re known for doing things quietly.
A Some of the best deals get done quietly; no one makes a big fuss,
both sides do their work and get the job
done. Sometimes you need U.S. government pressure or European government
pressure, or other industry groups or
other competitive players [involved].
Decision making in China remains
highly idiosyncratic in many areas. You
have to really think through who should
be seen, in what order. You have to think
about this in a very methodical way,
while still realizing that you might have
to do one more step, or five more steps,
or that there are three more things you
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