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China uncomfortable with No. 2 world economic rank

BEIJING — Who me, rich and powerful? China's official reaction this week to its latest milestone — surpassing Japan to become the world's second-largest economy — has been more modest than boastful.

Rather than flaunting its newfound status, China, the world's most populous nation but still roughly the 100th in per capita income, is going through contortions to show that it really isn't that successful at all.

Since Monday, when Japan released economic data showing its gross domestic product for the second quarter had slipped behind China's, Beijing has been trumpeting its shortcomings. In news conferences, on talk shows and in editorial pages, commentators have hastened to pooh-pooh the statistics, saying they are wrong, misleading or meaningless. They compare China not to Japan or the United States, but to Albania — both have annual per capita income of about $3,600.

This has not been a time for the Communist Party to boast about the fact that China has chalked up annual growth rates averaging 9 percent for the past two decades.

"There is little celebration in this land," sniffed the English-language China Daily in an editorial Thursday. "We have no time to be intoxicated by big numbers."

At a briefing Tuesday in Beijing, foreign ministry official Zhu Honghai gave a lengthy enumeration of China's weaknesses: rural poverty, social disparities, low levels of investment in education, medical care, social security.

On the talk show Today Observed on CCTV, economists chatted about why Chinese shouldn't be happy about overtaking Japan, while one newspaper headline accused the foreign press of "trying to flatter China to death."

A strange turn of phrase in a country where the foreign news media is often accused of "China bashing."

What, beyond truthfulness, is behind all the self-deprecation?

"China has played the underdog and victim for a long time, and they're used to that role," suggested Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing. "There is an adolescent quality of not being comfortable with what you're becoming."

By insisting that it is still a "poor, developing nation" — a phrase often repeated by Beijing — China is also able to beg off demands in negotiations over issues ranging from climate change to trade balance.

To some extent, China's expressions of humility might be a cultural reflex.

"As Chinese, we do things differently from the West. We are used to keeping a low profile and not bragging about any single achievement," said Zhang Yansheng, an economist at the National Development and Reform Commission.

China uncomfortable with No. 2 world economic rank 08/19/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 19, 2010 9:55pm]
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