Thursday, 20 November 2008

The geographic similarities between China and the US

The FT has an excellent piece in today's paper comparing the geography of the US and China and China's emergence as a world leader.

This is also an astute piece of analysis and should sound some alarm bells in Washington.

How China can be more than 350 Albanias [FT]

It is a truth occasionally acknowledged that if you lay a map of China over one of the US, some striking similarities emerge. Their size is uncannily close, with both occupying almost exactly 6.5 per cent of the world's land mass. Their shapes are broadly similar, if you make allowances for Alaska. (That at least spares us a Chinese version of Sarah Palin.) Both have a rich eastern seaboard - the US has a rich western one too - and swathes of relatively underdeveloped hinterland. History has placed their most important city, Beijing and New York, in the top north-east corner, and their Mecca to Mickey Mouse, Hong Kong and Anaheim, in the south.

If you ask Chinese academics whether China has a role model, a surprising number point to the US. That country is the only one - leaving aside Russia - with the continental scale and oceans of ambition to match China's own. Even culturally, there are superficial similarities. Viewed from Japan, with an etiquette-laced culture that values craft above commerce, China looks like an American-style can-do nation where money is king.

But recent events have knocked China's confidence in - even respect for - its mentor. After years of preaching the virtues of the free market to Beijing, Washington has created a raft of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) from the wreckage of Wall Street. Its once mighty car industry, with brands every Chinese person once aspired to own, has been reduced to knocking on the door of politicians, begging bowl in hand. The next thing you know, Washington will be working on a five-year plan


Of course, politically, the US's reputation has been temporarily salvaged by Barack Obama. His victory is seen in China as evidence of the extraordinary flexibility of US democracy, surprising those who thought Americans would never pick a black president.

But financially, America's glory days appear over. Chinese academics love telling the story (you would think they were all listening in on the call) of how George W. Bush begged Hu Jintao, China's president, to keep buying US bonds. China will keep on helping out, they say, though it knows the US will have to debase the dollar. "Only God can fix it and Obama is not God," says Shi Yinhong, professor of international politics at Renmin University. "If they print too much money, the financial basis of this empire will collapse."

China appears to hold all the cards. It has nearly $2,000bn (€1,570bn, £1,330bn) of reserves and a fashionably basic banking system that the state uses to funnel money to the real economy. (Are you watching Hank Paulson?) The government can spend an extra $586bn to keep growth ticking over at 8 per cent. (Ditto.) Francis Fukuyama, the academic, fresh from declaring the victory of liberal democracy, now suspects US hegemony is fading. He recently told Newsweek: "American power relative to the world is declining because of the growth of other centres of power."

So what has all this got to do with Albania - David Pilling waits until the last paragraph to tell us:

The power and energy on display in emerging Chinese cities can be so impressive it is easy to forget that China's per capita output is less than Albania's. In purchasing power parity terms, at $5,325, China comes in 100th place, four slots behind Albania.

Of course China, with its 1.3bn people, has an economy vastly bigger - roughly 350 times bigger, in fact - than its east European cousin. Scale does matter. But, until China chooses to act like the sum of its parts, it might be more useful to think of it as 350 Albanias than as one America.


1 comment:

Vikram said...

It is a tad arrogant to claim that the US is the only country that matches China in its continental scale. Brazil is as big as the US mainland, and has very little barren land. India and Europe are also big and have a lot of fertile land and geographical/cultural diversity.