The IMF, meanwhile, predicts that China will become the planet’s leading economy by 2016. In other words, the guy elected next November will be the last president of the United States to preside over the world’s dominant economy, and he’ll end his term back where Grover Cleveland was: a global runner-up. My colleague Jonah Goldberg thinks all this talk of Beijing’s economic might is nutso: He points out that China has 40 million people who live in caves, etc. That’s all true. Back in the heyday of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan and Oriental stereotyping, Erle Stanley Gardner wrote en passant in the course of a non–Perry Mason yarn: “The Chinese of wealth always builds his house with a cunning simulation of external poverty. In the Orient one may look in vain for mansions, unless one has the entrée to private homes. The street entrances always give the impression of congestion and poverty, and the lines of architecture are carefully carried out so that no glimpse of the mansion itself is visible over the forbidding false front of what appears to be a squalid hovel.” In a sense, the Communists have simply inverted the “false front”: Behind the glittering skylines of the coastal megalopolises lies a vast peasant hinterland in which not even the non–cave dwellers are in danger of being mistaken for a consumer society.
But that’s the point: China’s newfound status is unsettling because it’s so weird. In the late 19th century, Britain may not have liked the rise of Germany and the United States, but it could look at its economic rivals and see newer, nimbler versions of itself. By contrast, China is on course to become the world’s leading economy without ever having been a developed economy. The fact that it’s full of cave dwellers and has no genuine market shouldn’t be cause for scoffing, but for a bit of quiet introspection on the crazy world we’ve ushered in. From Reuters: “China Blasts U.S. for Ignoring ‘Ticking Debt Bomb.’”
Consider how utterly incomprehensible that headline would seem to an American from a mere 30 years ago. Back then, the smart guys assured us that economic liberalization would force political liberalization upon China. Instead, we helped them come up with the only economically viable form of Communism. So economically viable, indeed, that Agence France-Presse reports that the People’s Republic has agreed to “purchase infrastructure assets from debt-plagued nations” in the European Union. Pace the CFR, not only is China still Communist, but Europe would rather mortgage itself to the Politburo than attempt to wean itself off its unsustainable welfare regimes.
But hey, relax. According to the Washington Post, “Black Friday and Other Holiday Weekend Shoppers Set Spending Record.” Hard to know what’s sadder: debt-laden “consumers” snapping up the latest trinkets from China, or expert “analysts” interpreting their stampede as a portent of recovery.
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).