More on those crazy 44% of Americans

I mentioned several days ago that, according to a recent Pew poll, 44% of the U.S. public thinks that China is the "world's leading economic power." OK, I can understand why some people might think so -- what with the trillions of dollars of U.S. debt to our Chinese overlords, the ubiquity of "Made in China" products wherever you shop, and the precision and scale of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Still, people who think this are wrong.

When reading the Pew poll, I immediately thought of a scene, from Gansu province, that gives an idea of how hundreds of millions of people get by in today's "all-conquering" modern China:

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And of the view from our apartment window in Beijing a few weeks before the opening of the Olympic games. The point of this one, of course, is that en route to industrial development, all countries have gone through their blacken-the-skies dirty industry stage. That is where China is now, though with serious efforts to get out of it:

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For readers in China, let me be 100% explicit and clear that the point is not to put down China's people or its system for the things the country has not yet achieved and the gaps not yet closed. Those achievements are phenomenal. But some people outside China have evidently developed a wholly unrealistic, fantasy-world concept of a China that has no remaining problems and is surging effortlessly ahead. A more realistic view -- of a country that is advancing dramatically, but from a very low level of average wealth -- is better for all concerned.

Below and after the jump, a note from an American financial-industry expert who has returned from a trip to China. He shares my wonderment at the views of the 44%:

"I am just back from a whirlwind eight day business trip to BJ and SH where I am doing work for an American financial services company. I wanted to let you know a few things:

"I used Postcards from Tomorrow Square as part of my trip preparation and it was terrific help on a number of fronts. [Forgive the self-promotional inclusion of this note; relevant in context - JF.] Coincidentally I found myself having a 5 star gourmet lunch at the Tomorrow Square hotel restaurant, where after some uncomfortable formalities with my Chinese hosts we ended up having a remarkably open and lively conversation about the realities of being a Shanghai businessperson, among other things... (some hopefully pertinent points below).
"After we discussed the likely prognosis for Yao Ming's chronically broken foot (!) [Yao Ming is from Shanghai] and my host's concern about the New Jersey Nets' record of futility this season, my host spoke openly that after working for 11 years in middle management at a US financial services company, despite making a salary that is many multiples of the average Shanghai income, he could only now afford to buy a home in Shanghai but was reluctant to do it for fear of using all of his nest egg...

"My host was clearly frustrated by the high cost of housing in SH, said that life should be about more than buying a home, and that he sometimes wondered if he should move his family back to Hunan ("Chairman Mao's hometown") where he could live off of his savings and lead a quieter life. The tension was evident in what he was saying, and it made me wonder if the Chinese might move more quickly through the "salaryman" phase than was the case in Japan. Meaning - might concerns shift in Shanghai towards quality of life within the same generation rather than in Japan, where the post-war generation's focus was on building up Japan Inc. and the first fissures began with Gen Xer's who came of age in the post-bubble economy? ·

"While clearly proud of the economic progress in China, my host raised his personal concerns about the environment and fear about what would be left to future generations. In fact I heard repeatedly and spontaneously concerns about the environment from a number of people I met with. My sense is the environment is clearly top of mind with the newly emergent professional class in both BJ and SH. [JF note: I agree.]

"My host then asked us for news from the US. I said I felt the US was having a crisis of confidence, that was in some ways a bigger crisis psychologically than materially (not to minimize the real jobless rate of 17%-18% we are experiencing), akin to what I experienced when I was a teen and college student in the late 70's and early 80's. He seemed puzzled by that - how could the world's greatest economic superpower be feeling this way? The place with the best universities, highest standard of living, most creative companies, skilled people, etc? My only response was we'd become a bit overconfident by the relatively easy money made in the '90's and 00's - and that we were never as good as we thought then, and not as bad as we think now...

"Finally [after the flight back to the US], I had a conversation last night with the gentlemen who drove me home (an underemployed driver still reeling from the economic downturn) that mirrored the 44% of Americans finding in the Pew survey you referenced. He could not believe it when I explained the average Chinese factory worker lives in a dormitory, makes perhaps $200-$300 US (certainly higher in purchasing power, but nothing approaching the US in any case). All of which when combined with your post from Pew closed the circle for me." 
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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