A funny thing happens if you ask people in different countries to name “the world’s leading economic power,” as Pew Research Center began doing in 2008.
Every time the question has been asked, Chinese have been most likely to say it’s the United States. But Americans, in five of the past eight years, have most frequently named China.
Both countries, it seems, consider themselves economic underdogs. And as a result, both countries have developed serious persecution complexes.
The U.S. perception of China as the world’s strongest economy — an Asian bully that steals livelihoods away from hard-working Americans — is an enduring source of confusion and aggravation for Chinese officials. When I mentioned the Pew Research Center polls to representatives of the Chinese People’s Institute for Foreign Affairs, the diplomatic organization escorting a visiting group of journalists (including me) around China, my hosts burst into laughter. When I mentioned it to Lu Kang, the director-general of information at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he just shook his head.
“I think the Chinese public has a better understanding of the United States than the American public has of China,” he said. (Disclosure: My trip is being paid for by the China-United States Exchange Foundation, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit that aims to improve Americans’ understanding of China.)
Yes, the Chinese economy had been expanding at breakneck pace — until recently, anyway — with per-capita output more than doubling over the past decade. The amount of development that has taken place since I lived in Beijing in 2004 is almost unfathomable. I can no longer refer to “the big luxury shopping area” and have people understand what I mean; there are now seven Louis Vuitton outposts scattered across the city.
It’s not just the capital that glistens with the smoggy glow of new wealth. The outskirts of cities such as Xi’an and Hangzhou are dotted with construction cranes assembling row after row of identical high-rise apartment buildings, planted like cornstalks across the plains. Despite the recent economic slowdown, expansion planning continues, as evidenced by the finely detailed, scale-model dioramas of massive industrial parks and export processing zones that abound here, usually accompanied by booming voiceovers and seizure-inducing light shows.
But from the Chinese perspective, all this is evidence of China’s ambition, not its dominance.
China, as its representatives like to remind us, is still a poor country. Even after more than doubling, per-capita output remains just a quarter of that in the United States in terms of purchasing-power parity. And of course the national average obscures the severe poverty afflicting tens of millions living outside the richer big cities. This was part of the reason why our multi-province itinerary included a visit to Da Ping, a 20-or-so-person mountain village in Shaanxi province that will soon be relocated to an apartment complex, for the “convenience” of its elderly residents, according to the village leader.
In other words, to the Chinese, China remains the striver, lifting the legions of poor in its wake; it’s the United States that’s the big bad bully, trying to keep China down.
In the United States, we hear firms complain of Chinese currency manipulation, or unfair subsidies to state-owned enterprises, or arbitrarily enforced rules when U.S. companies try to get a bite of the ripening Chinese market. But Chinese officials insist again and again that it’s Chinese companies that are being treated unfairly. Lu, of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was among several who condemned the United States’ “politically driven” treatment of companies such as Huawei, a telecommunications firm that has effectively been shut out of U.S. acquisitions because of national security concerns.
“The United States is supposed to be the most open economy worldwide,” he said sardonically, engaging in a favorite Chinese pastime of criticizing the United States for flouting ideals it likes to lecture China on. He also expressed disappointment that China is being used as a sort of bogeyman to rally U.S. support for the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade negotiation that excludes China; the deal’s closure is critical, President Obama has said, lest the United States otherwise allow China to “write the rules of the road.”
It’s not just the Chinese brass that’s full of righteous indignation. Another question on that Pew Research Center survey found that a majority of Chinese people believe that “the U.S. is trying to prevent China from becoming as powerful as the U.S.”
The challenge for policymakers ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s upcoming Washington visit is to defuse this zero-sum-game attitude and prevent it from escalating into full-blown economic warfare. There’s perhaps no more incendiary battle cry, after all, than “We’re Number Two.”