According to data released by the World Bank, China’s economy is now three times the size of Germany’s, more than twice the size of Japan’s, and nearly five times the size of India’s. The US economy, however, the world’s largest, remains 65% bigger than that of the Middle Kingdom.
That’s not, however, what a surprising number of the citizens of America’s top allies believe. According to a recent Pew Research poll across 38 countries, a majority of the citizens in seven out of ten West European countries, including Germany, the UK, and France, believe that China is now the world’s leading economic power. Only one-in-four Germans picked the US for economic leadership. Even our cousins to the north—the Canadians—chose China over the US. And the residents of Australia picked China by a two-to-one margin.
What gives? In addition to being allies, these are some of the most educated and informed citizens on the planet?
Publicity, of course, plays a big role. China has gotten a lot of favorable press of late, most recently in terms of its leadership in the arena of climate change following the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. And China came up frequently during the 2016 presidential campaign, often serving as the bogeyman for the “America First” rally cry that put Trump in the White House.
Publicity is publicity. As showman extraordinaire, P.T. Barnum, is credited with saying, “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”
With all of that publicity, and all of the anxious handwringing about China’s emergence as a global leader, in fact, it is a bit ironic that a majority of US citizens picked the US in Pew’s survey. Forty-five percent, however, didn’t, yet another example of the divide plaguing the US at the moment. China got the nod for economic leadership among 35% of Americans and 10% picked Japan or the EU in equal proportion.
I’m not sure anyone can explain these results. One of the laws of the universe that I have come to accept as both universal and infallible, however, is the law of unintended consequence. Things seldom go as planned. For every action there is a reaction, to paraphrase Newton; but as often as not it is not the one anticipated or intended.
During the time of British colonial rule of India, the British government, a popular anecdote goes, became alarmed at the growing population of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi. A bounty was offered for dead snakes and, at first, the population of cobras appeared to decline. Eventually, however, people began to breed the snakes for the income they could receive from killing them. The government ultimately realized what was happening and discontinued the bounty program. At which time the breeders simply released their now-worthless snakes, greatly increasing the threat that was the original target.
That’s just one of thousands of examples of unintended consequence, of course. Be careful what you wish for, my mother used to say; you’ll probably get it. That’s certainly been my experience.
I have to admit, therefore, that I find one of the great ironies of the Pew survey to be that many of the countries that chose China over the US are thought to be served by the most independent and trustworthy media in the world—the Western media.
At one level that seems quite counter-intuitive, of course. One can easily rationalize that a free press—the Fourth and Fifth Estates, as some define them—is the cornerstone of an informed society. The media makes that case on a daily basis. And it’s a pretty sound case, for sure.
There are, however, two sides of every coin.
It was Canadian scholar, Marshall McLuhan (1911-80), who said, “The medium is the message.” Contrary to popular misconception, however, McLuhan was not referring to the media as we think of it today. He defined a medium as an extension of ourselves and noted that once new technology became commonplace it is generally true that the impact is both good and bad. The automobile, for example, is an extension of our feet. And it has provided great benefits in terms of travel and convenience, but it has also given us air and noise pollution, traffic fatalities, and contributed to an increasingly overweight population.
Life is full of dichotomies. Understanding that duality is the key to understanding most things, including China and business, as I have argued in the first two volumes of the Understanding series of books I authored. (Both are available on Amazon and the third volume, Understanding Life, will be out soon.)
The Russians got it wrong, by the way, although Russia is not generally known for its media independence. Perhaps that’s just another dichotomy. While an independent media has the freedom to sell its agenda to the citizenry of Western Europe, the Russian media does not. The result, nonetheless, is the same—six of one, half dozen of the other.
The Mexicans did pick the US, as you might expect—or not. Colombians got it right, too, although it might be interesting to get their take on what powers the US economy.
The country that picked the US most often was South Korea, followed by Japan and Israel, all key allies of the US. And Vietnam and Hungary picked the US with the same frequency as Americans did.
Who knows what it all means. Perception is everything, however, and in that regard China’s stock is certainly rising. Or is America’s falling? You’ll have to decide that for yourself, but it would appear that some of America’s strongest allies, at least, have their doubts.
Contact: You may reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
Another excerpt from Understanding Business, now available at Amazon in paper and Kindle formats (direct links provided below):
With our blind obsession with process, it should be no surprise to any business leader that many customers consider the entities from which they purchase goods and services to be inflexible and insensitive to the customer’s needs. The employees, taught in much the same way that Pavlov taught his dogs, are stuck in the middle. Many inevitably fall back on process—the established policies—as a way to impersonalize the angst of the customer and defuse a negative situation. Of course, it seldom works.
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