Unbreakable China

U.S. imperial ambitions aside, our economy is slipping behind

Those critics who insist that the American empire is the root of all evil might consider the possibility that the U.S. imperial state is declining, not growing.

There are numerous signs: The euro bests the dollar. The U.S., for the first time in years, is a net importer of food. And we increasingly depend upon investment by other nations to sustain our lifestyle.

Racing to replace us as the world leader with the most dynamic economy is China. Currently the Chinese have outpaced the U.S. as the largest consumer of resources.

"Among the five basic food, energy, and industrial commodities—grain and meat, oil and coal, and steel—consumption in China has already eclipsed that of the United States in all but oil," writes Lester R. Brown in a new Earth Policy Institute study. "China has opened a wide lead with grain: 382 million tons to 278 million tons for the United States last year. Among the big three grains, the world's most populous country leads in the consumption of both wheat and rice, and trails the United States only in corn use."

The statistics are impressive: China outeats us in meat, 64 million tons to 38 million. Most of China's meat is pork. The country has half the pig population of the world. With the native fish population in the world's oceans declining, aquaculture, or fish farming, is taking over the provisioning of fish all across the world. And here the Chinese once again are the leaders.

The Chinese use more than twice as much steel as we do. In addition to steel, China uses more aluminum and copper; we're a distant second. China is also a major producer of zinc and lead. We are still well ahead of China in the consumption of oil: 20.4 million barrels a day to 6.5 million. But China's consumption has doubled and now ranks second to the U.S., surpassing Japan. More coal is burned in China than in the U.S.: 800 million tons to 574 million tons. It pumps far more chemical fertilizer onto its crops than we do. It is a major provider of cotton.

China is also a major and notorious producer of human body parts. The country is best known for selling eyes, kidneys, skin, and other parts of prisoners after they are killed—and sometimes even harvesting parts before the people are actually dead. The Chinese lead the world in the production of fine human hair, which because of various types of extensions is once again a booming business.

In 1996, China had 7 million cell phones and the United States had 44 million, notes Brown. By 2003 China had 269 million, versus 159 million in the United States. In effect, China is leapfrogging the traditional landline telephone stage of communications development, going directly to mobile phones.

The rapidly growing Chinese economy is causing the reorganization of the world's resource industries, most of which were first organized during the industrial revolution of the 19th century by the British, French, and other European powers to feed raw materials from colonies to factories and consumers in the growing cities of Europe.

While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq occupy the headlines, the Chinese have been steadily building up their own lines of supply of oil, and more important, pollution-free natural gas. As a result, substantial portions of the recently developed oil and gas supplies of Central Asia and of the Arab oil producers will be heading east, not west, across the Indian Ocean.

The rise of China can be a danger sign for the U.S. Its big trade surplus with the U.S. and high domestic savings rates are indications of economic strength, and make it possible for China, along with Japan, to buy U.S. securities, which, as Brown points out, allows the U.S. to run the largest budget deficits in its history. So far, so good. But if China should decide to re-channel its investments into, say, long-term contracts for natural resources in, say, West Africa, where there are new oil finds, or Central Asia or Latin America, the U.S. economy could be in grave trouble.


Additional reporting: David Botti and Nicole Duarte


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