China may be as heavily in debt as we are. It just has a different way of keeping its books -- which makes a high-profile political ad sponsored by Citizens Against Government Waste, a fiscally conservative think tank, particularly ironic. Set in a lecture hall in China in 2030, the controversial ad shows a Chinese professor lecturing on the fall of empires: Greece, Rome, Great Britain, the United States . . . .
"They all make the same mistakes," he says. "Turning their backs on the principles that made them great. America tried to spend and tax itself out of a great recession. Enormous so-called stimulus spending, massive changes to health care, government takeover of private industries, and crushing debt."
Of course, he says, because the Chinese owned the debt, they are now masters of the Americans. The students laugh. The ad concludes, "You can change the future. You have to."
James Fallows, writing in the Atlantic, remarks:
"The ad has the Chinese official saying that America collapsed because, in the midst of a recession, it relied on (a) government stimulus spending, (b) big changes in its health care systems, and (c) public intervention in major industries -- all of which of course, have been crucial parts of China's (successful) anti-recession policy."
That is one anomaly. Another is that China has managed to keep its debt remarkably low despite decades of massive government spending. According to the IMF, China's cumulative gross debt is only about 22% of 2010 GDP, compared to a U.S. gross debt that is 94% of 2010 GDP.
What is China's secret? According to financial commentator Jim Jubak, it may just be "creative accounting" -- the sort of accounting for which Wall Street is notorious, in which debts are swept off the books and turned into "assets." China is able to pull this off because it does not owe its debts to foreign creditors. The banks doing the funding are state-owned, and the state can write off its own debts.