Or at least it is if politics is prevented from tainting that success
Technical questions and bitter debate threaten to overshadow what is fundamentally historic news – that China is on the verge of overtaking the United States as the world’s largest economy. US President Barack Obama’s opponents have found fresh ammunition with which to attack him, and America’s critics everywhere have been hailing the imminent changing of the economic guard. But take away the politics – domestic or international – and we should all be happy that the gap between living standards in the US and those in China is narrowing.
However, the analysis of the economic strengths of both countries has sparked doubt as well as praise. Fuelled in part by wounded pride, the doubters argue that China becoming the world’s biggest economy doesn’t mean the average Chinese is now better off than his or her American counterpart. That judgement, they point out, depends on the definition of “better off”.
Regardless of the effect on its citizens, China will be burdened by the responsibility of its new position as the leading economy. Beijing might well be content with its secondary status, secure from the international pressure forever weighing on the top position. In economic terms, it’s not just lonely at the top, it’s also quite costly.
But it’s also true that two heads can be better than one – if they can pull together to help the rest, that is. China being the leading economy is different from China in second place. It will no longer be able to evade global issues the way it has done. That should be good for the world economy as a whole.
China’s success in spite of its restrictive ideological system will again be thoroughly examined. When the world’s leading economy was a democracy, “textbook” logic could explain all. With a communist country leading a mostly capitalist world, serious questions emerge.
We shall leave the question of political effect on economic success to the experts and expressions of wounded pride to the online pundits. China’s steady economic rise should be welcomed simply because it indicates a narrowing of the international income gap. The simple fact that a developing nation – with a population many times the size of that of the United States – is doing well economically can only be good news.
In the most basic terms, such as meeting citizens’ everyday needs for food and shelter, the readjusted assessment of the Chinese and US economies is a success story. Global political debate is full of intangibles like ideals and questions about “quality of life”. The latest analyses of China’s economic accomplishment refrain from such talk and focus instead on the nation’s tangible success. What it delivers is a fascinating pointer that is shocking to some and promising to others.
Some say China’s success is a bubble that will ultimately burst, inflated by an ego-driven attempt to vindicate its ideology. There might be some truth in that, but an economic bubble is fed by hyped-up demand for non-essentials. China seems relatively safe from that. However, the peril that comes with being the world’s biggest economy is, ironically, that the public’s lust for more will grow. Hence, both China’s and the world’s economic future depend on how Beijing handles the temptations that come with taking the helm.