Chinese Century

The New York Times Magazine has a cover story on China:

China is everywhere these days, influencing our lives as consumers, providers, citizens. It has by far the world’s most rapidly changing large economy, and our reactions to it shift just as quickly. China is at one moment our greatest threat, the next our friend. It siphons off American jobs; it is essential to our competitive edge. China is the world’s factory floor, and it is the world’s greatest market opportunity. China’s industrial might steals opportunities from the developing world, even as its booming economy pulls poorer countries up (lately it has been getting credit for helping Japan out of its slump too). China exports deflation; it stokes soaring prices. China will boom; it will bust. Or perhaps the country’s economy is feeling its way right now to the soft landing that will prevent another Asian economic crash, and all the recent record numbers on trade, industrial output, consumer spending and debt are simply now in scale with China’s size. The truth about China is that, like all big countries, it is full of real contradictions.

Another truth is that the current feelings about China do not fully reflect today’s reality. The U.S. economy is about eight times the size of China’s. Our manufacturing sector is bigger than the entire Chinese economy. Americans, per capita, earn 36 times what the Chinese do. And there is no shortage of potential roadblocks in China’s path, either. Its banks may collapse. Its poor and its minorities may rebel. Uppity Taiwan and lunatic North Korea may push China to war. The U.S. could slap taxes on everything China ships to us.

Still, barring Mao’s resurrection or nuclear cataclysm, nothing is likely to keep China down for long. Since 1978, its gross domestic product has risen fourfold; in straight dollar terms, China’s economy is the world’s sixth-largest, with a G.D.P. of around $1.4 trillion. It has gone from being virtually absent in international trade to the world’s third-most-active trading nation, behind the U.S. and Germany and ahead of Japan. Tom Saler, a financial journalist, has pointed out that 21 recessions, a depression, two stock-market crashes and two world wars were not able to stop the U.S. economy’s growth, over the last century, from $18 billion ($367 billion in 2000 dollars) to $10 trillion. In constant dollars, that is a 27-fold increase.

China is poised for similar growth in this century. Even if China’s people do not, on average, have the wealth Americans do, and even if the United States continues to play a strong economic game and to lead in technology, China will still be an ever more formidable competitor. If any country is going to supplant the U.S. in the world marketplace, China is it.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.