According to the latest Pew poll on US attitudes on international affairs, 44% of Americans think that the world's leading economic power is... China. Only 27% think it's the United States. Here's the somewhat blurry chart from the report.
As Barack Obama would say: Let me be clear. People who think this are crazy. Or, to be more gentle, they are really woefully misinformed about what the world is like.
You could address this point with, you know, "facts." Almost no one in the United States is a peasant farmer. Most people in China are. Nearly everyone in America has indoor plumbing. Most people in China don't. Japan has one-tenth as many people as China, yet its economy is larger -- the second largest in the world. America's is of course largest of all, three times larger than Japan's and about four times larger than China's. Name 20 large American corporations that do business worldwide. Without trying, you can probably name 50. Try to name even 10 from China. Name the most recent winner of a Nobel prize in science from a Chinese university or research institution. (Hint: this is a trick question.)
But visual aids may somehow convey messages that "facts" don't get across. Toward that end, it's worth checking out a much-circulated recent post on the ChinaSmack blog -- a site that translates popular Chinese posts into English. It's about practical living circumstances in a Beijing
elite university district.** Here's a sample photo:
It ain't Princeton.
As I'll explain at greater length in the next "State of the Union" issue of the Atlantic, China is big, fast-growing, important, and interesting. But the world's leading economic power? Someday, perhaps. But now, no way.
In unrelated news, I see that 44% of the public wishes that the 43rd president were still in office. I'm not sure which is the less heartening thought: that these are the same 44% who think that China is already #1, or that a total of 88% of the public holds one of the other of these views.*
* To clarify in response to query, obviously I am mentioning here the two boundary cases. One extreme is total overlap between the two 44% groups, so that the same 44% of the public thinks China is all-powerful and wishes GW Bush were still in the White House. The other extreme is zero overlap between the two, so that no one who thinks China is on top wants Bush back, and vice versa. Then the two groups would total 88%. In the real world it's somewhere in between.
** Also to clarify, this is not from the elite university district, Haidian. Still, I've seen a lot of places like this.