Americans know that China has financed much of their nation’s public and private debt. During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain generally agreed on the peril of borrowing so heavily from this one foreign source. For instance, in their final debate, McCain warned about the “$10 trillion debt we’re giving to our kids, a half a trillion dollars we owe China,” and Obama said, “Nothing is more important than us no longer borrowing $700billion or more from China and sending it to Saudi Arabia.” Their numbers on the debt differed, and both were way low. One year ago, when I wrote about China’s U.S. dollar holdings, the article was called “The $1.4 trillion Question.” When Barack Obama takes office, the figure will be well over $2 trillion.
During the late stages of this year’s campaign, I had several chances to talk with the man who oversees many of China’s American holdings. He is Gao Xiqing, president of the China Investment Corporation, which manages “only” about $200billion of the country’s foreign assets but makes most of the high-visibility investments, like buying stakes in Blackstone and Morgan Stanley, as opposed to just holding Treasury notes.
Gao, whom I mentioned in my article, would fit no American’s preexisting idea of a Communist Chinese official. He speaks accented but fully colloquial and very high-speed English. He has a law degree from Duke, which he earned in the 1980s after working as a lawyer and professor in China, and he was an associate in Richard Nixon’s former Wall Street law firm. His office, in one of the more tasteful new glass-walled high-rises in Beijing, itself seems less Chinese than internationally “fusion”-minded in its aesthetic and furnishings. Bonsai trees in large pots, elegant Japanese-looking arrangements of individual smooth stones on display shelves, Chinese and Western financial textbooks behind the desk, with a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. perched among the books. Two very large, very thin desktop monitors read out financial data from around the world. As we spoke, Western classical music played softly from a good sound system.