Trade deal enshrines Santa clause

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 November, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 November, 1999, 12:00am

So you thought, did you, that Santa Claus lives in the North Pole and has a mailing address in Finland? Think again. Santa and his elves moved several years ago. They now live and work just across the border in the mainland and are at this moment putting the finishing touches to the last toys that his new sleigh, a Boeing 747 cargo plane, will take to their final destinations.

Every year some 60 million Christmas trees in North America must each be furnished with about 10 pieces of brightly wrapped plastic rubbish on December 25 and it's officially rubbish if the date slips.

Doing it is an enormous job of planning, organisation and manufacturing. Only one country in the world can do it in this volume. That country is right across our border.

And if you still believe in the old version of Santa Claus you may also still believe that the United States rules the patch in the computer business. Think again. In software perhaps, but just flip over the laptop you use and you will find the words 'Made in Taiwan' there.

The mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong now export US$325 billion worth of goods per year - well in excess of Britain's exports and about 80 per cent of Japan's, up from about 40 per cent 15 years ago.

What we have here is the world's newest and one of its largest workshops with a perfect match of hi-tech in Taiwan, trading and finance in Hong Kong and production facilities in the mainland.

It has proved itself virtually immune to the recent Asian financial crisis and it has not yet stopped growing. It has a superb and largely unrecognised base of scientific talent in the mainland, it suffers no financial strains with its equity financed operations and it has a vast pool of cheap labour too.

Yet until Monday only Hong Kong was considered worthy of inclusion in the world's club of trading nations, the World Trade Organisation.

Now the mainland may get membership.

Most of the commentary on the signing of the mainland's WTO membership accord with the US has concentrated on the things that the mainland has agreed to do to open its markets and service industries to the rest of the world.

The steps are a crowbar to prise the heavy hand of state intervention from key sectors of the economy and they will give a great boost to Premier Zhu Rongji's reform efforts. Although the US may have insisted on them in its own self-interest, they are good for the mainland too.

But let's bear two points in mind here. The first is that any bank or telecoms company which thinks it can waltz into the mainland tomorrow with as much freedom as it has at home is fooling itself.

Leave alone the fact that agreement does nothing to address the huge failings of the mainland's corporate law, there are many ways other than directives from Beijing of keeping unwanted foreigners out and they will certainly be used at lower levels. WTO agreement is the start, not the end.

More than that, we may be overlooking the benefits of WTO agreement to the mainland's exports. This agreement sets the stage for further export growth. It ensures, if this success story continues, that no country can raise barriers to imports from the mainland that it does not impose on imports from other countries as well.

Santa Claus, in other words, should be happy. No matter how big he gets, those chimneys will let him through now.