Could the Chinese Profit from the Strauss-Kahn Scandal?

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As jailed Frenchman Dominique Strauss-Kahn submitted his resignation as managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), China quickly positioned itself as a possible beneficiary. On Thursday, Chinese state media wondered aloud whether the next IMF leader should be Chinese. One candidate bandied about by the official Chinese press—meaning, of course, that the name is emerging with the approval of the Chinese government itself—is Zhu Min, the Chinese ex-central bank deputy governor who now serves as an adviser to Strauss-Kahn. The other possibility, according to the Chinese, is current central bank chief Zhou Xiaochuan. Both speak English and have international experience, not exactly a given among senior Chinese economic figures.

Traditionally, the world’s multilateral financial organizations have balanced power politics by making the IMF’s leader a European and the World Bank’s chief an American. Leading the race for the IMF managing directorship is French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde. But with developing world nations becoming more of a global force, some emerging economies have called for a reordering of the international economic order. In addition to the Chinese, the names of an Indian, Korean, Turk and Singaporean have been mentioned as potential candidates for the IMF job.

The IMF is already becoming less Western-centric. Late last year, voting reforms paved the way for increased influence from rising powers like China and India. With Asia now serving as the world’s economic growth engine, the continent certainly has more international sway than it did during the late 1990s when the Asian Financial Crisis turned the region into a testing ground for controversial IMF bailout packages. Today, it is European nations like Portugal and Greece that are suffering from debt crises and relying on the IMF.

Realistically, the Asian contingent may end up being more of a kingmaker for the next IMF chief, as opposed to filling the position with one of its own. That’s in part because of regional factionalism: an Indian would hardly support a Chinese candidate, and vice versa. Additionally, the top ranks of the IMF are already well weighted in the continent’s favor, meaning support for an Asian chief would be harder to garner from the rest of the world. At least for Beijing, they can take pride in the fact that a Chinese is now serving as the World Bank’s Chief Economist, a plum position in international finance. Justin Yifu Lin defected from Taiwan in 1979 and went on to a distinguished career as a mainland Chinese economist before moving to Washington. You can’t write a more heartwarming story for the state-controlled Chinese media than that.