SHANGHAI, China – When President Barack Obama lands tonight in China’s largest city, Shanghai, he’ll find many of its 20 million people intrigued by him and welcoming, but hardly deferential, and some openly skeptical of his promises of change.
Obama will find a stunning futuristic skyline of orbs, skyscrapers, flashing neon and curling overpasses. If he gets outside his protective security bubble, he’ll see streams of cars driven by the newly affluent, grimy noodle shops selling 50-cent soups and chicken feet, fusion bars and multinational corporate headquarters. He’ll also be watched by educated Chinese increasingly confident about their prospects if they stay in China, and less convinced that America’s where it’s at.
In mainland’s most Western-minded and economically dynamic center, where Obama will deliver remarks Monday before moving on to the capital of Beijing, many Shanghainese see the global balance of power shifting: China is ascending, while America may have peaked.
“The U.S. is a very big and strong country, military-wise, economy-wise. It’s still important,” said Zhou Jun, 38, who runs a garment business in Shanghai. “But compared to before, China has a lot more influence on the world.”
The United States remains by far the world’s biggest economy. Its gross domestic product is five times as large as China’s. But momentum is clearly moving Asia’s way. China’s economy, already surging this year by more than 8 percent, is expected to expand by 9 percent in 2010.
China is the United States’ biggest creditor, holding more than $1 trillion of U.S. debt. And while the U.S. economy clambers out of a deep slump, Asia has rebounded with vigor. Asian economies will grow by nearly 6 percent next year, compared with 1.5 percent for the U.S., according to the International Monetary Fund.
In this nation of 1.3 billion people – a billion more than in the U.S. – there’s a deep gulf between the haves and have-nots. Hundreds of millions of poor Chinese worry about illness, about how they’ll survive the early snow, how they’ll make ends meet. For many younger people in Shanghai, however, the standard of living is quickly improving.
There’s populist support for the American and Chinese governments working together to contain North Korea, clean the environment and save the world economy.
There’s also mistrust.
On pollution and consumer safety, several Chinese asked: Doesn’t American demand for cheap goods drive manufacturing? Don’t Americans worry less when it’s someone else’s dirty air? On the economy: Why should Americans criticize the Chinese for how they manage their currency when the U.S. can print more money and expect China and Japan to prop it up?
While Obama talks about supporting free trade, many Chinese see his tariffs on Chinese tires as evidence that he’ll usher in more protectionism if his political base demands it.
“He talks really nice, saying stuff about how he’s going to change everything … but on the other hand bashing Chinese trade,” said Wang Guanjun, 50, an information technology consultant.
“China is a partner with the U.S. If we compromise, it’s good for both countries. If America still doesn’t want to do free trade, China is still going to become stronger,” Wang said. “We have 1.3 billion people. We’ll win.”
Washington Post contributed to this report.