China Is No.1 (Or So Many People Believe)

A Chinese worker checks molten metal at a steel plant of Dongbei Special Steel Group in Dalian city Photograph by Imaginechina via AP Images

Has China become the world’s leading economic power, unseating the U.S.?

Even as mainland growth begins to cool, that’s what many people now believe, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. It’s the first time international opinion has put China’s economy on top. And it shows a big shift in global perceptions since the global financial crisis dented world confidence in America and boosted China’s international standing as the fastest-growing major economic power.

Results from the survey—conducted via more than 26,000 phone and personal interviews in 21 countries during March and April—show 42 percent of respondents cite China as having the leading economy, compared with 36 percent who chose the U.S. In 2008, before the financial crisis, 45 percent said America led globally, while only 22 percent gave the top slot to China. “Assessments of American economic power have declined over the last year, and views about U.S. economic strength have shifted dramatically over the last four years,” says the report, which was released June 13 and gave its respondents the option of choosing the U.S., China, Japan, the European Union (or other/none), as the mightiest economic power.

European countries are most convinced of the shift, with 62 percent of Germans, 58 percent of British, and 57 percent of both French and Spanish saying China is now the economic leader. Even those in the U.S. were slightly more confident about China’s economic leadership, over their own nation’s economic role: 41 percent of Americans put the Asian giant’s economy on top, while 40 percent say the U.S. economy is leading. “Perceptions about the global economic balance of power have been shifting, with growing numbers naming China, rather than the U.S., as the world’s leading economy,” the report stated.

China of course is still far from the largest economy. Its GDP of $7.3 trillion is only about half the size of America’s, at more than $15 trillion. But China has been moving rapidly up the ranks. In 2010 it knocked out Japan, becoming the second-largest economy in the world. And a year earlier, it sold more goods overseas for the first time than Germany, becoming the No. 2 exporter.

Who still recognizes the U.S. as the world’s preeminent economic power? Only in two countries do more than half those surveyed choose America. Fifty-one percent of Mexicans choose the U.S., compared with just 18 percent who say it is China. And in Turkey, 54 percent say the U.S. still leads, with 22 percent giving the top position to China. Interestingly, Asian rival India has the least confidence in China’s economy of any country, at just 17 percent, with the largest number, 37 percent, choosing the U.S.

Chinese for their part aren’t anywhere close to convinced they now lead: Just 29 percent think their country is now the world’s economic leader, compared with 26 percent in 2011. And this year 48 percent of Chinese chose the U.S., down slightly from the one-half who did last year. In this latest survey, 5 percent of Chinese put the European Union in the top spot, while only 2 percent say that about once-mighty neighbor Japan—the smallest number choosing Japan of any of the surveyed countries.

“There is no country in which even 20 percent name Japan as the leading economic power,” the survey says. And Germany, where 17 percent said Europe is the leading economic power (down from 36 percent in 2009), is the only nation where “the percentage identifying the financially troubled EU as the leading economic power reaches double digits.”

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