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And this is only the beginning. On present trends, China could overtake Japan as the world's second-largest economy by 2016 and take the top spot from the United States by 2040.
Look a little further into the distance, and China looms even larger. Even if its growth slows to 4 or 5 per cent a year from the current 9 per cent, it would have an output of $40-trillion by 2054. Today, all Group of Eight economies together produce only half that figure.
Think of how far it has already come. Just 20 years ago, a sunset visitor to Coal Hill would have looked down on a sea of bicycles carrying commuters in Mao suits through a cityscape of dingy apartment blocks and ancient neighbourhoods toward their jobs in outmoded, state-run factories.
But in 1978, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made a decision that, looking back, was one of the most daring of the 20th century. Casting aside Communist orthodoxy and declaring that ”to get rich is glorious” — a phrase that could be the slogan of the new China — he began opening the country's closed, centrally planned economy.
Released from the bondage of central planning, the Chinese quickly exhibited the genius for commerce and trade that characterize Chinese communities from Hong Kong to Singapore to Canada. Their dynamism has transformed China at developmental light speed, turning a peasant society into an industrializing nation with more than 236,000 millionaires.
Of course, many things could still interrupt China's progress. With its immature stock market, shaky banking system and hundreds of rusting state-owned businesses — not to speak of its outmoded, undemocratic political system — China is bound to take a tumble somewhere along the road to riches. But, then, the United States went through no fewer than 10 boom-and-bust cycles during its rise to economic supremacy in the 19th century.
That rise changed the face of the world, and China has 260 times as many people as the United States did then. As veteran Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew once said: ”It's not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of man.”
But what kind of player? While he was U.S. president, Bill Clinton said that the fate of the world hangs on how China defines its greatness. Will it be like Japan after the Second World War, content to grow wealthy and keep a low profile? Or will it be more like Germany before the First World War — arrogant, aggrieved and aggressive?
That is probably the biggest question mark hanging over the first half of the 21st century, and one of the most disputed. Bookshelves groan with books heralding the ”Coming Conflict” with China or the ”Coming Collapse” of China. The country's boom is either the greatest opportunity the world has ever seen, or the biggest threat; either awe-inspiring miracle, or approaching disaster; either the best news in years, or the worst.
Consider the good news first. Since Deng Xiaoping executed China's historic U-turn at a session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1978, 270 million people have climbed out of poverty — the most successful development project in history, and a slap in the face for those who say globalization helps only the rich.
China had such a miserable 20th century — from the chaos of its warlord era, to invasion by the Japanese, to civil war between Nationalists and Communists, to the famine and fanaticism of Mao's reign — that the early 21st looks like a golden era by comparison. Despite the corruption, authoritarianism and contempt for human rights shown by their governing regime, China's 1.3 billion people, a fifth of humankind, are generally richer, safer and freer than they have ever been.
What is good news for the Chinese is also good for everyone else.
Today's stable, growing China is far less threatening than the poor, paranoid version of Maoist times, when the country spat venom at the ”imperialist West” and went to war with the United States (and Canada) over Korea, with India on its Himalayan frontier and nearly with the Soviet Union over their common border. It may be a simple coincidence, but China has not fought a war with anyone since it took on Vietnam in 1979, a year after launching its reforms.