MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Now, an Asian economy that's headed in the opposite direction. Within a year, China is likely to replace Japan as the world's second-largest economy. It's already kicked Germany from its position as the world's biggest exporter. China may look like a global power, but as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing, China is also still a developing nation.

Mr. ANTHONY KUHN: It's a common news item these days, foreign emissaries traveling to Beijing to seek its cooperation on some global issue - take something like emissions cuts.

Tsinghua University economist Hu Angang says that, as goes China, so goes the world.

Mr. HU ANGANG (Economist, Tsinghua University): (Through translator) China will be at the core of the global trend of emissions reductions. China already accounts for a fifth of humanity. And in the future, China will account for 40 to 50 percent of the increase in new emissions. That's why the whole world is so concerned about when China's emissions will peak.

KUHN: In other words, because of its sheer size, China's importance in world affairs has outstripped its level of development or its capabilities. It's become a key global player without either the wealth or military muscle of a superpower.

Beijing's response to foreign concerns has been to emphasize that it is still a developing country with limited means.

In a recent interview with state media, Premier Wen Jiabao explained why development would remain China's priority.

Premier WEN JIABAO (China): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: A huge population, big regional differences in development and widespread poverty, he said, this is still China's basic situation.

So is China still a developing country? Well, it is and it isn't, says Tsinghua's Hu Angang. For one, he argues, economic disparities among China's regions are too great to generalize about the whole country. And, he says, the situation is too complex to use one measurement. China's per capita economic output, for example, isn't even among the top 100 nations.

But, Hu says, it's a totally different picture if you factor in health, education and the purchasing power of the local currency.

Mr. HU: (Through translator) In 1982, most Chinese were living in Third or Fourth World conditions. By 2006, a third of Chinese were living at First World standards. Two-thirds were at Second World standards, and only Tibet was in the Third World.

KUHN: Hu predicts that by these broader measurements, two-thirds of Chinese will be living at developed world levels in a decade. Analysts believe this is likely because China is in an economic growth spurt that could last for years. Part of this developmental phase is a ravenous appetite for energy, resources and consumer goods.

China Academy of Social Sciences climate expert Pan Jiahua says that as a latecomer to energy markets, China feels like it's attracting an unfair share of scrutiny.

Mr. PAN JIAHUA (Climate expert, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences): (Through translator) When China goes somewhere to obtain oil or natural resources; it draws a lot of international attention. This doesn't happen to U.S. or European countries. What we're doing is normal, but some people in those countries feel that we're stealing their resources.

KUHN: China's leadership realizes that the current phase of development carries big risks of social inequality and unrest. Many scholars say that lowering these risks requires political reform. But that's something for which, critics say, Beijing's appetite has been less than robust.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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