The Middling Kingdom

The Hype and the Reality of China’s Rise

Courtesy Reuters

By any measure, China's economic growth has been unprecedented, even miraculous. According to the International Monetary Fund, the Chinese economy grew by an average of 9.6 percent per year between 1990 and 2010. At the beginning of the recent global financial crisis, many feared that the Chinese growth engine would grind to a halt. In late 2008, Chinese exports collapsed, triggering fears of political instability and popular revolt in the country. In the end, however, the global economic crisis turned out to be little more than a pothole on the road of China's economic growth. Inflationary pressures may now be building up in China, and China's property bubble may be threatening to burst, but most economists continue to predict rapid growth for the country well into the future. Although their forecasts vary widely, they seem to share the view that China's growth will be fast -- if not as fast as it has been -- and that this rate of growth will continue for decades. These predictions are at once cautious about the near future (China's performance will not be as extraordinary as it has been) and optimistic about the distant future (they see no end to China's upward trajectory). By coincidence or design, they are moderated extrapolations of current trends.

For example, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Fogel believes that China will grow at an average annual rate of eight percent until 2040, by which time it will be twice as rich as Europe (in per capita terms) and its share of global GDP will be 40 percent (compared with 14 percent for the United States and five percent for the European Union). Other economists are slightly more cautious: Uri Dadush and Bennett Stancil of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace predict that China will grow by 5.6 percent per year through 2050.

Like many other forecasts of China's continued rise, these projections are based on careful formal economic modeling. But are they convincing? Extrapolating from current trends may make sense when predicting growth in the next year and

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