AS USUAL IN trade disputes, both sides have a different story to tell in the latest controversy that has resulted from the United States slapping additional tariffs on imports of television sets from the mainland. Washington's version has it that a giant of TV set production has deliberately dumped goods in the US at below cost in order to drive American manufacturers out of business and control the market. Beijing's version has it that manufacturers who sell at fair prices are under attack because US producers simply cannot bear honest competition. Let us put some perspective on this, starting with the assumption that domestic TV set production in the US (truly domestic, that is, and not just some final-stage assembly) must be only a minute industry by now. I cannot find exact figures to tell me how much of it still exists but this is probably because the statisticians no longer find it worth tracking. They do not find it worth tracking in most of Asia either, but I have figures for overall exports of TV sets from four countries. The first chart tells you the story. Seven years ago, the mainland's overall exports of TV sets were barely a third of Malaysia's and less even than Thailand's. In late 1999, however, things began to change and in four years the mainland's exports of TV sets have quadrupled in value to an average of US$255 million a month at present. This would be a big figure if it were money in your pocket but it still amounts to less than 1 per cent of the mainland's total exports and is still notably less than Japan's exports of TV sets. No, we do not have a giant of TV set production here. Nor would it seem to be a big swing factor in US imports of TV sets. Once again I cannot find precise breakdowns but let us assume that half of the mainland's TV set production goes to the US and that half of the US import category described as 'television, VCR etc' consists of TV sets. In that case the mainland's share of the total has risen from 1.5 per cent four years ago to 4.5 per cent now, which is up, yes, but does not make the mainland a dominant force. What we have here, it seems, is even less reason for fuss than in the controversy about US imports of brassieres from the mainland. These account for 17 per cent of total retail sales of brassieres in the US. TV sets from the mainland would be only a fraction of this number. It is probably the issue of pricing that is more the sticking point, although US consumers have little to complain about on this score. Over the past 20 years the average price of a TV set in the US has fallen by 78 per cent while disposable personal income has risen by 168 per cent. In other words, US consumers pay only about 12 per cent as much of their income as they did 20 years ago to buy a TV set. But, even then, do the mainland's producers cheat by driving prices down to clean out the competition? The second chart shows you the more recent record of the mainland's overall unit export price for exports of colour TV sets, and that last steep decline in pricing, about 20 per cent in the space of 18 months, is certainly suggestive. It may indicate nothing more than that economies of scale have produced their usual result of lower costs of production but I would not be absolutely certain of it, particularly as these 18 months also represent a period of US dollar weakness and the cost of components, with commodity prices way up, would probably have risen. A more telling reason for doubt, however, is that TV set production in China has a greater element of local government shareholding than do other export industries. It is just possible that what we have here again is producers who do not spend much time looking at their profit and loss accounts as they are instead desperate for US dollars to satisfy other obligations or simply to squirrel away money offshore. In short, I would wait a little before proclaiming that the US case is utterly without justice. This is not a dispute that will have much effect on the US or Chinese economies but it may still prove to indicate a clear instance of dumping.