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Americans See China Crowding Out U.S. as Economic Leader

Americans See China Crowding Out U.S. as Economic Leader

PRINCETON, NJ -- In a sharp turnaround from eight years ago, Americans no longer believe the United States is the world's leading economic power. They are now more likely to bestow that mantle on China.

According to Gallup's annual World Affairs survey, updated Feb. 11-14, 2008, 4 in 10 Americans consider China to be the world's leading economic power; only 33% choose the United States. By contrast, in May 2000, the United States dominated public perceptions on this question, with 65% saying it was No.1.

Nearly all of the movement away from the United States as the perceived leading economic power has gone toward China. The percentages today choosing Japan, the European Union, and India are about what they were in 2000.

The United States' drop on this measure is nearly as sharp as the decline in U.S. consumer confidence over the same period. In a May 2000 Gallup Poll, when the country was still riding the dot-com boom, 66% of Americans rated economic conditions in the country as "excellent" or "good." Today, with the country poised on the edge of recession, only 23% are positive about the economy.

The Future Looks the Same

Eight years ago, most Americans (55%) were confident the United States would retain its No. 1 economic positioning for at least the next two decades. Few believed China, Japan, or the EU would overtake the United States. Now, when asked to look ahead 20 years, more Americans predict China, rather than the United States, will be the world's leading economic power.

Notably, not many more Americans think China will advance to the economic superpower position in 20 years (44%) than think it is already there (40%). About a third believe the United States will be the top economic power, similar to the percentage naming it as the leading economic power today. Relatively few Americans expect Japan, the EU, India, or Russia to emerge as the top economic superpower.

Facts of the Matter

When considered against the backdrop of China's enormous population, the story of China's explosive economic growth over the last few decades (averaging 9.6% annual growth in GDP since 1978) can seem formidable. According to a recent Newsweek article, "In 2007 China contributed more to global growth than the United States, the first time another country had done so since at least the 1930s."

Still, according to the most recent World Bank figures, the United States leads the world in economic output (as measured by GDP), and by a substantial margin over second-ranked Japan. China has been making impressive strides in climbing the rank order of national economies, rising from sixth in the world in 2000 to fourth in 2006, but still falls below the United States, Germany, and Japan.

Americans' misperceptions about the economic rank order of nations also overlook Japan's stature on the economic playing field, ranking second worldwide. Also, although few Americans mention the EU as an economic powerhouse, 5 of the EU's 27 member countries, including third-place Germany, rank in the top 10 of the world's largest economies.

Bottom Line

Americans are in an economic funk at a time when China's extraordinary economic growth is getting considerable attention. The contrast is evidently sharp enough to be causing Americans to assume the economic tables have turned.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,007 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 11-14, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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