You won’t hear that kind of talk in China, though.
I recently spent three weeks in Beijing and Dongguan, an industrial city in the south, looking for stories about China’s economy, which is experiencing its slowest growth rate in years. I asked everyday citizens about the real estate market or the manufacturing sector, but in nearly every interview, deep concerns about the future of the country tumbled out, often unprompted.
It’s hard to get ahead these days, people kept saying, no matter how hard you work. The gap between rich and poor is widening. The education system is begging for an overhaul. The government is corrupt and needs massive reform.
This was not the country President Obama and Mitt Romney were talking about on the campaign trail — a giant poised to crush the United States if we don’t stay competitive. Instead, it was a nation wracked with anxieties, some of them strikingly like those of our middle class.
China-watchers know all this and can easily tick off the many problems facing the country at this moment, just as a new generation of leaders assumes power. But average Americans consistently overestimate China’s strength.
Consider this recent Pew Global Attitudessurvey: When asked which country had the world’s leading economy, 41 percent of Americans said it was China, even though China’s economy is one-third the size of ours. Per capita income in the United States is nearly nine times the Chinese figure, which ranks 84th in the world, lower than Azerbaijan, Lebanon and Chile, according to the World Bank.
For their part, many Chinese have put the United States on a pedestal, envisioning a place with better schools, cleaner air and more charismatic leaders. And they are making plans to emigrate here.
Guo Hui, a Beijing resident, invited me into his home to talk about China’s real estate market, but we wound up spending two hours discussing the future of the country and his plans for his family.
Guo’s apartment was sleekly modern, with tall ceilings and children’s toys covering nearly every surface. He and his wife are educated, urban and upper-middle-class — exactly the kind of people you imagine thriving in an ascendant China.
Yet they hope to move to the United States within the next few years. Their 1-year-old son was born here while they were visiting as tourists, and he has an English name, Daniel.
“People like me who have made money by our own efforts — we feel like we can’t make money on our own anymore,” Guo explained as we sat on his floor, watching Daniel toddle around the living room. He made his money in public relations and is an avid stock market investor. Still, he said, “people with contacts with the government can get ahead, but other people cannot.”