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China: The American Dream


While it may be fading at home, the American dream lives on... in China.

It was the year 2001. I was a high school student snuggled in the coveted global economic powerhouse -- the United States of America. The dot-com bubble was in the midst of blowing up and the War of Terror had begun, but the world remained centered around the land of the red, white and blue.

China was just some poor, developing country half a world a way. I could barely place it on the map, let alone tell you it housed a population of 1.3 billion people that speak Mandarin, or that its currency was called the renminbi.

I was taught about an American Dream I would have the chance to chase upon graduation. The thought of ever leaving the comfort of my free and dominant country was unimaginable.

As we round out the end of the decade that began with me unable to tell you what country Shanghai was located in, I sit here in that very city, in a modern apartment flipping through a National Geographic magazine with a fold-out cover displaying not rice paddies but the dazzling skyline I see through my thirteenth floor window. A skyline that puts New York City to shame.

My 8-year old cousin in rural Pennsylvania is taking Mandarin lessons and the fact that China owns the United States to the tune of $800 billion treasuries is common knowledge among Americans.

The world as we knew it in 2001 is gone.

  • Ten years ago, China had no billionaires. Today it has 128 known billionaires, second only to the US. And Forbe's recently released list of "China's 40 Richest" reported that their total net worth had exploded from $38 billion last year to $120 billion this year. As the third world's largest consumer market, potential growth is so enormous that many companies have segregated China operations from domestic and global on financials.
  • At the beginning of the decade, China had 22.5 million internet users. Today, it has 420 million; more than the entire world did in 2000.
  • Owing to China's dominance as the world's manufacturer, its foreign exchange reserves increased by nearly $1.8 trillion over the past decade, to $2 trillion.
  • Foreign Direct Investment to China swelled from $46.9 billion in 2001 -- the year the country joined the World Trade Organization -- to $90 billion in 2009, making it the largest recipient of foreign investment. It is on track to bring in a record-breaking $100 billion in 2010 as foreign companies swiftly expand to lower tier cities to capitalize on rising income levels.
  • China's share market emerged into the world's largest IPO market in 2010, raising nearly RMB300 billion compared to just RMB120 billion at the beginning of the decade. And just five years after China's first major lender went public; China Construction Bank's IPO was, at the time, the world's largest IPO.

The changes and growth are so staggering that a country that didn't even belong to the World Trade Organization at the inception of this decade is now being called to the forefront of the global recession as one that could save the West.

But have China and the rest of the world gone too far in defining the country's place in the global economy based on just 10 years of change?

Behind all that glitters in China's tier one cities, a third world economy is plainly visible just a few steps from Shanghai's most prominent streets. Buried beneath the statistics that developed economies should find threatening are even more that are frightening. Everything accomplished in the last decade has been accompanied by major problems including pollution and a widening income gap between city and rural workers.

A street barber two blocks from prominent Nanjing Road near the author's flat illustrates a third world economy existing in a country that, by numbers, ranks as the second largest economy in the world.

The irony of personally owned foreign luxury vehicles and Chinese pedestrians clothed in high-end Western brands crossing daily in front of Mao's portrait peering over Tiananmen Square is strong. Yet it speaks volumes of the reluctance for China to evolve in its entirety.

On my commute to work, I walk through communities that resemble small villages sectioned out amongst the city. While modern skyscrapers cluster around them, the lives below remain unchanged from a decade ago. Even in Shanghai, evidence that only a fraction of China has emerged into a prominent country is easy to spot. Just off the top of my head, stagnant problems include undrinkable tap water, weak sewage systems and poor safety standards.

Small communities spanning the streets below the skyline display a China that has risen to the top in the past decade in the same frame as a China that has remained unchanged.

Let us not forget that below surface numbers, China is still a developing country. But as China steps in to the next decade with its 12th five-year plan that calls to address many parts of the country that remained static in the last decade of growth, it will continue to build strength. It isn't ready to save the world just yet, but its race to world dominance is fierce.

A recent China Daily article highlights how China is "poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country". While the author over-dramatizes the fall of the American empire and the rise of the Chinese dominance, the notion that the world order is changing and greatly involves China is valid.

The author in the China Daily article stated that it's "evident in the 21st Century that people across the world are changing their perception of the dream land". The question of China's sustainability is called out by most, including myself -- I discuss the country's fundamental problems regularly.

But being privileged to have the opportunity to see both the United States and China from the outside looking in as well as from within, I'm all in on China. Because if the last decade resembles anything of the next, I'll get to realize the American Dream I had built up so long ago and thought was lost. Just half-way around the world.
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