Copyright Newsweek International
May 9 issue – Americans admire beauty, but they are truly dazzled by bigness. Think of the Grand Canyon, the California redwoods, Grand Central Terminal, Disney World, SUVs, the American armed forces, General Electric, the Double Quarter Pounder (With Cheese) and the Venti Latte. Europeans prefer complexity and nuance, the Japanese revere minuteness and minimalism. But Americans like size, preferably supersize.
That’s why China hits the American imagination so hard. It is a country whose scale dwarfs the United States—1.3 billion people, four times America’s population. For more than a hundred years it was dreams of this magnitude that fascinated small groups of American missionaries and businessmen—1 billion souls to save; 2 billion armpits to deodorize—but it never amounted to anything. China was very big, but very poor. All that is changing. But now the very size and scale that seemed so alluring is beginning to look ominous. And Americans are wondering whether the “China threat” is nightmarishly real.
Every businessman these days has a dazzling statistic about China, meant to stun the listener into silence. And they are an impressive set of numbers. China is now the world’s largest producer of coal, steel and cement, the second largest consumer of energy and the third largest importer of oil, which is why gas prices are soaring. China’s exports to the United States have grown by 1,600 percent over the past 15 years, and U.S. exports to China have grown by 415 percent.
The most astonishing example of growth is surely Shanghai. Fifteen years ago, Pudong, in east Shanghai, was undeveloped countryside. Today it is Shanghai’s financial district, eight times the size of London’s new financial district, Canary Wharf, in fact only slightly smaller than the city of Chicago. And speaking of Venti Lattes, last week Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz noted on CNBC that in three years the company would probably have more cafes in China than in the United States.
At the height of the Industrial Revolution, Britain was called “the workshop of the world.” That title surely belongs to China today. It manufactures two thirds of the world’s copiers, microwave ovens, DVD players and shoes. (And toys, my 5-year-old son would surely want me to add. All the world’s toys.)
To get a sense of how completely China dominates low-cost manufacturing, consider Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is America’s—and the world’s—largest corporation. Its revenues are eight times those of Microsoft, and make up 2 percent of America’s GDP. It employs 1.4 million people, more than GM, Ford, GE and IBM put together. It is legendary for its efficient—some would say ruthless—efforts to get the lowest price possible for its customers. In doing this, it has used technology, managerial innovation, but, perhaps most significantly, China. Last year Wal-Mart imported $18 billion worth of goods from China. Of Wal-Mart’s 6,000 suppliers, 5,000—80 percent—are in one country, and it isn’t the United States.
But the statistic that wins this contest, that conveys the depth and breadth of the challenge the United States faces, is surely the one about the Intel Fair. Intel sponsors a Science and Engineering Fair, which is the world’s largest precollege science competition, open to high-school students from around the world. Last year was a good one for Americans: 65,000 participated in the local fairs that are used to select finalists. In China the number was 6 million.
Yes, Chinese fairs are not as good as American fairs, the standards are different, and you can’t compare apples and oranges. But still, 6 million oranges!
China’s rise is no longer a prediction. It is a fact. It is already the world’s fastest-growing large economy, and the second largest holder of foreign-exchange reserves, mainly dollars. It has the world’s largest army (2.5 million men) and the fourth largest defense budget, which is rising by more than 10 percent annually. Whether or not it overtakes the United States economically, which looks to me like a distant prospect, it is the powerful new force on the global scene.
China’s growth has obvious and amazing benefits for the world, and in particular for America. A Morgan Stanley report shows that cheap imports from China have saved American consumers more than $600 billion in the past decade. They have saved manufacturers even more. The Economist magazine notes that “it was largely thanks to China’s robust growth that the world as a whole escaped recession after America’s stockmarket bubble burst in 2000-01.” And by buying up U.S. Treasury bills, China—along with other Asian countries—have allowed Americans and their government to keep borrowing and spending, and thus to keep the world economy going.
There have been two great shifts in global power over the past 400 years. The first was the rise of Europe, which around the 17th century became the richest, most enterprising and ambitious part of the world. The second was the rise of the United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when it became the single most powerful country in the world, the globe’s decisive player in economics and politics.
For centuries, the rest of the world was a stage for the ambitions and interests of the West’s great powers. China’s rise, along with that of India and the continuing weight of Japan, represents the third great shift in global power—the rise of Asia.
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