Is it the yuan or the renminbi?

Lately Mitt Romney has been trying to raise concerns about China’s practice of keeping its currency’s value artificially low. I decided I’d better study up on this.

First I had to figure out whether China’s basic currency is the yuan or the renminbi. The stories about Romney’s concerns mention both of them as being artificially low. Apparently the yuan is a unit of the renminbi, but don’t take my word on that, because I stopped reading about currency when I stumbled upon a story about Chinese debutantes.

CNN reported that this year, “Shanghai hosted its first International Debutante Ball, and an invitation to the high-society event is becoming the new status symbol in the city.”

The reporter quoted a guy named Ricky Gong, which is always a good idea. You find a source named Ricky Gong, you ride him.

‘Upper class feeling’

Ricky Gong, 39, a “beauty contest organizer,” attended China’s first debutante ball in January. He told CNN, “The ball was elegant, noble and very ceremonial. It had a very strong upper-class feeling.”

The ball was held at the Shanghai Waldorf Astoria. Thirteen young women made their debuts into high society, wearing gowns, tiaras and jewelry worth 60 million renminbi. I would like to tell you how much that is in yuan, but as I said, I got distracted. It’s apparently about 9.5 million bucks, but if Romney is right, it should only be about 7 million bucks, which would be the point of this if I hadn’t read this quote from Ricky Gong:

“The event is good for shaping the elite class of socialism. Our society needs elites like (the debutantes) to help build positive social morality and establish correct values.”

Think about that: Ricky Gong thinks a society needs debutantes to establish a baseline for social morality and values.

No doubt Mao’s waxed body would be spinning in its mausoleum were it not for the fact that these debutantes were not actually citizens of the People’s Republic. They were Chinese expats who came back to Shanghai for the ball.

If you want to see real Chinese debutantes, you have go to Paris for the annual debutante ball. That’s where the daughters of the Chinese Community Party bigshots — “red princesses,” they call them — make their debuts.

I was thinking that all of this was remarkably hopeful. Even if President Romney starts bashing China as a currency manipulator, a country whose elites have enough money to squander on silly things like debutante balls, while its poor labor 12 hours a day in iPhone factories for 1,800 renminbi a month (again, I don’t know what this is in yuan, but it’s 283 bucks), that country is not likely to want to go to war.

Then I read about the unveiling of China’s new aircraft carrier.

Why would a nation with no hostile intent spend $20 million for an unfinished Soviet aircraft carrier hull from Ukraine and another $2 billion fitting it out? Especially if that nation had (a) no pilots trained for carrier landings and (b) no planes capable of carrier landings?

This makes even Pentagon spending seem reasonable.

Status deal

Apparently having an aircraft carrier is a status deal, like having debutantes. China certainly has enough money to spend on aircraft carriers, what with its trade surplus, iPhone factories and manipulated currency.

Plus, an aircraft carrier Sends a Signal, as they say around defense policy tables. China has been feuding with Japan over some small, essentially useless, islands. It’s worried about the new U.S. emphasis on Asia. It wants to Project Power, like the U.S. Navy does with its aircraft carriers.

All things considered, debutantes might be a bigger global force for good than aircraft carriers. A nation whose rich people have debutante-daughters has too much to lose to start a big war.

Sure, aircraft carriers are useful in scaring the socks off small nations. But in a big war, in an age when you can send a cruise missile through someone’s bathroom window, aircraft carriers are very vulnerable targets, to say nothing of expensive.

America’s newest aircraft carrier, The Gerald R. Ford, will have cost $9 billion by the time it’s finished in 2015. You put 90 aircraft, at $50 or $60 million a copy, on it and you’re getting into some real money. I’d give it to you in renminbi, but I got distracted.

Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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