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China viewed through two different lenses

By Chen Weihua (chinadaily.com.cn)
Updated: 2010-02-26 10:54
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Editor's note: Will the 21st century belong to China? The author doubts that as China is still a developing country, with so many domestic issues to deal with.

NEW YORK: The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll which shows more Americans believe the 21st century will be a China century rather than an American one might again agitate many in the United States and gratify many in China.

The survey, released on February 25, shows that 41 percent of the 1,004 adults polled says it will be a China century in terms of economic strength, while 40 percent named the US. When it comes to world affairs, 43 percent chose China, with 38 percent selecting the US.

An earlier poll in December by the Pew Center revealed a similar picture, with more Americans believing China, instead of the US, is the world leading economic power.

While these polls have reflected China's rapid rise on the world stage in recent years, both in economical and political arenas, they have also camouflaged the fact that China is fundamentally a developing country and still poor in the per capita sense.

Yes. China may soon surpass Japan as the world's second largest economy, trailing only the US. Yes. China has overtaken Germany as the world's top exporter. Yes. China is one of the top creditors of the US.

And China is exerting increasing clout over a multitude of world affairs ranging from the global financial crisis, North Korea’s nuclear talks, Iran’s nuclear program to climate change.

All these have brought new dynamics to the world today. The rest of the world has to adjust and cope with a fast-growing and more assertive China now and in the years to come. And the world is becoming multi-polar rather than staying uni-polar.

However, those who are awed by the sheer size of China's economy and export should also look at the sheer size of the country's population of 1.3 billion, or a fifth of the world's total. It would simply justify China being on the top of major economic indicators as well as a major player in the world.

You could easily misunderstand China if you just visit Shanghai and Beijing and never reach the vast hinterland and underdeveloped northwestern part of the country.

China's per capita GDP ranks 96th in the world and is less than a seventh of that in the US. At least 150 million Chinese are still living under the global poverty line of $1 a day set by the World Bank.

As a developing country and one in transition, China is facing mounting pressure from serious environment pollution, a widening income disparity, a weak social security network as well as ethical and moral confusion.

China must grow further in order to lift more than 10 percent of its population out of poverty. It will take many years and decades for the country to become a middle-income country in the world.

So for those who feel agitated, threatened or thrilled by the polls, they might have a very different mood if they start to look at China by its sheer size as well as in the per capita sense.