David Pilling: China at Number Two ... and counting





[David Pilling is the Financial Times' Asia Editor.]

This week, I received an e-mail from a friend in Tokyo tagged: “Greetings from Number Three, Japan.” He was mourning the passing of an era. The quarterly numbers he was alluding to suggest that, even in dollar terms, China is now the world’s second-biggest economy. There it will remain until, catastrophe or stagnation aside, it overtakes the US to become Number One.

Dollar comparisons are pretty arbitrary, as much influenced by currency fluctuations as by economic activity. They do not take into account that it is much cheaper to buy a house, a meal or a foot massage in Beijing than in Tokyo. In purchasing power terms, China’s economy surpassed Japan’s nearly a decade ago. But symbolism counts. And by that measure, China’s usurpation indeed ushers in a new order. For the first time since 1968, when Japan overhauled the then West Germany to become the second-largest capitalist economy, there is a new pretender to the US throne.

There are important similarities between Japan in 1968 and China in 2010. Then, Japan’s achievement demolished any lingering racist notions that non-whites were somehow incapable of modernisation. As recently as 1958, liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith had begun The Affluent Society by defining wealthy nations as those “in the comparatively small corner of the world populated by Europeans”. For many Asians, China’s rise symbolises their region’s rightful return to the forefront of human endeavour. China, with an ancient writing system and the world’s biggest economy for 18 of the past 20 centuries, is simply restoring affairs to their “natural” state...

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