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Aiming for the Top Spot | By Don Morrison | Illustration Allan Sanders

China's ascent makes America look the loser.

I KNOW WHAT it・s like to be a loser. Growing up, I attended schools that were distinguished less by their academic rigor than by their losing athletic teams. The industry in which I made my career, putting carbon-based ink onto dead trees, has been on a downward slope since I joined it. Worst of all, I am a citizen of a country that is today the poster child for economic, diplomatic and reputational decline, the United States.

A citizen but not a resident. For months now, I have been a permit-holding denizen of Beijing, capital of the world・s fastest-rising power. Finally, I am learning what it is like to be on the winning side. Evidence of China・s rise surrounds me: world-class architecture, teeming supermarkets, multi-lane expressways packed with new cars. True, these baubles exist elsewhere, but China lacked them until a few minutes ago. The country・s rise is vertiginous: twin-digit annual growth for the past decade, an auto market that is now the world・s second largest (after the US), 69 Starbucks in my new hometown alone. China is the world・s largest producer of mobile phones, digital cameras, laptops and bright engineers. China・s economy is predicted to displace those of Europe, Japan and the US as No 1 sometime in the next 10 or 20 years, depending on your economist.

With economic power has come new confidence. I see it in the faces of my Chinese students, born to affluence and ready to take on the world. China・s new swagger is unmistakable V and seemingly focused on dramatizing America・s decline. The head of the central bank, Zhou Xiaochuan, suggested that the US dollar be replaced as the world・s reserve currency. Premier Wen Jiabao expressed concern over the safety of US Treasury bills. Vice Premier Wang Qishan called for a major overhaul of the World Bank and the IMF, with a bigger role for China. April・s G-20 economic summit in London turned into a virtual G-2 meeting, with China accorded primacy alongside the US.

China is feeling frisky everywhere. Last year・s Beijing Olympics was a no-expense-spared celebration of the country・s new clout. Afterward, an official of the 2012 Games in London observed that his country would not attempt to match the Chinese effort. China has helped block US attempts to impose sanctions on Iran and North Korea. China・s emphasis on :soft power; over Bush-style bullying has won admirers in Africa and Latin America, which happen to have the natural resources China needs.

So strong is its hand that China this year allowed a group of writers to publish a book denouncing the West V which, they, complain, has connived to keep China from its rightful place in the world. The authors are especially ticked off at the US for causing the global financial crisis. America, the authors insist, :has been irresponsible, lazy and greedy, and engaged in robbery and cheating.; The book, a bestseller, is called Unhappy China.

The book reminded me that this year is the 20th anniversary of a similar screed, The Japan That Can Say No, by Akio Morita and Shintaro Ishihara. That opus marked the apogee of Japan・s postwar rise V and western paranoia about the :Japanese threat.; We all know what happened next. Japan・s bubble burst. Its zombie banks, frozen political system and interlocking industrial sectors were slow to respond, and Japan endured a :lost decade; of economic stasis and punctured hubris.

Is China heading for hubris? Will its Olympics-lulled leaders coast on their sanguine predictions of eight percent growth this year? Is China・s US$585 billion stimulus package just smoke and mirrors, destined merely to shore up state-owned enterprises and local party bosses? Is there already so much overcapacity in China that stimulus is pointless? Are the country・s politically influenced banks ineffectual? Are ordinary Chinese too worried to spend money? Will environmental damage and bad governance limit new growth? And what about the millions of workers idled by the current downturn V will they cause trouble? I sure hope it・s :no; on all fronts. A slowdown in China would prolong the global recession, wreck financial markets, heighten domestic unrest, deepen the leadership・s control-freak tendencies, spark a search for scapegoats, slow some admirable environmental measures and make China very unhappy indeed. Me too. I hate being a loser. And if the Chinese stop trying so hard to be No 1, we・ll all be in that category.

WITH ECONOMIC POWER HAS COME NEW CONFIDENCE. I SEE IT IN THE FACES OF MY CHINESE STUDENTS, BORN TO AFFLUENCE AND READY TO TAKE ON THE WORLD