Don't get carried away with GDP

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-08-04 07:45

China's economy will soon overtake Germany's, and by 2040 it will trump the US and become the world's number one.

That sounds like good news to me, but the euphoria over the prediction is nothing but unsettling.

The forecast is a slight variation of the ambitious scheme of almost half a century ago, namely, "overtaking Great Britain and the US".

You know how that one ended. But the ranking-conscious mentality is a reminder of how little we have matured even though our economy has made miraculous strides.

For one thing, GDP is only one barometer of an economy, and not a satisfyingly accurate one at that. It does not take into account the environmental cost and the psychological burden of torrid growth. That's why someone came up with the fuzzier "green GDP".

For another, GDP does not measure how each individual fares in an economy. When divided by 1.3 billion, we are still way behind and it's probably easier to count our ranking from the bottom up.

The irrational jubilation of some of my compatriots derives from a deep-seated insecurity, which is the result of a constantly refreshed memory of a century of the country's humiliation: We were beaten because we were weak. Now that we are strong, we can stand tall and proud.

There is nothing wrong with being proud of our achievement, but getting carried away with it may have negative consequences. Just as a nouveau riche may squander his money to boost his image and inflate his ego, a country has the same temptation. One seems to need a dose of superiority to overcompensate for the erstwhile sense of inferiority.

That is why it is extremely important to keep a clear head in a time of unprecedented boom and wealth. We need to focus on what should be done rather than gloating over what has been done. When you turn your sight from the metropolises to remote areas, you'll still be able to find poverty gnawing at a large swathe of our population. There are people who trek for half a day just to get a pail of water. There are victims of natural disasters that need our help. There are countless people who toil under conditions that do not meet our stated or implied standards.

A surge in economic data is only meaningful when it benefits those who make it possible. GDP is just a number; it will have to be substantiated by things like better food on the table, roomier shelter for the family and more roads that link landlocked villages. It has to be made tangible with better and more affordable education, more and better-paid jobs, more choices of recreational activities, more access to information and more channels of expression.

If a higher GDP cannot be reflected in these things, why don't we just fill in whatever number we desire and be cheerful about it?

Along with great strength and stature comes great responsibility. Remember what Spiderman said? While a strong economy should improve the living standard of our populace, it also means we should spend more helping those in other countries who need help and join the international community in fighting Green Goblin, Doc Ock and Sandman oops, I mean, terrorists.

A Chinese youth who thinks we can do whatever we want now that we will beat Germany and the US in GDP is playing right into the hands of those who advocate the "China threat". It's the flip side of "We were beaten because we were weak". But getting stronger does not necessarily mean acting irresponsibly. Let's start by acting rationally towards our progress.

(China Daily 08/04/2007 page4)

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