The Giant Sucking Sound of Chinese Forestry Imports


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Several years ago, the eccentric American politician Ross Perot coined the phrase ’the giant sucking sound’ to refer to the jobs that the United Stateswould supposedly lose to Mexico if it approved the North American Free TradeAgreement (NAFTA). The idea was that Mexico would act like a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking in American jobs, and the effect would be so large you could hear it. Something like this may actually be going on in the case of Chinese forest product imports. (I mean the large vacuum cleaner effect, not the loss of American jobs.) Over the last five years, the volume of China’s forestproduct imports more than doubled. In 1999 alone, forest product imports rose by almost two billion dollars (US). Roundwood imports grew by over 100%. Sawnwood imports went up by close to 60%. Pulp and paper importsincreased over 50%. Although China only became a major importer of forestproducts in the 1980s, at present it imports over 40% of all its commercial timber.

Four factors largely account for these astonishing figures:

1) The Chinese economy has grown very fast.

2) The Chinese National Forest Protection Program (NFPP) has curtailed domestic timber production by about ten million cubic meters since 1997.

3) China reduced tariffs on forest products frombetween 40 and 50% to about 15% in preparation for its entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). (Tariff rates for logs and sawnwood have been reduced to zero.)

4) China’s inefficient paper industry and other forest processing industries cannot compete with foreign imports.

What all this implies for workers and the environment remains uncertain. Obsolete paper mills employ as many as 700,000 Chinese workers, whose jobsare threatened by the growing imports. At the same time, foreign competitionmay push the Chinese pulp and paper industry to upgrade its equipment and install systems that pollute the water less. The Russian Far East has been a major source of China’s new imports, but it is too early to say how the growth in that region’s timber exports will affect its forests. A discussion note called ’WTO and Chinese Forestry: An Outline of Knowledgeand Knowledge Gaps’ by Changjin Sun from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences provides a useful starting point for thinking about these issues. Sun’s specific concern is how China’s entrance into the WTO may affect its forest product imports, but he frames the issue in its broader context.


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Further reading

If you would like to obtain an electronic copy of that discussion note or send comments about this message you can write Changjin Sun at: