America the Gutted: How big of a problem is China?

BOSTON — “The whole secret of existence is to have no fear.”

So said the Buddha.

Then again, that happy chubster wasn’t particularly concerned with a structural economic shift that contributed to a steady decline in his income, or the rise of a distant economic power that — over a period of several decades — cornered the market on his profession of spiritual philosophy.

Unfortunately, millions of middle-class Americans don’t have that luxury.

So the results of a Pew Research Center survey this week should come as no surprise: Americans, by a large majority, fear China’s economic prowess.

Examine these numbers:

According to Pew, 59 percent of Americans view China’s economic rise as a threat, versus the 28 percent who are more troubled by China’s military power.

Sixty-six percent view China as a competitor, versus the 16 percent who see Beijing as a partner.

A full 78 percent believe China’s large holdings of US debt is a serious problem.

Seventy-one percent see US job losses to China in that same light, while 61 percent believe the US trade deficit with China is a serious problem.

Download the full Pew report here. It’s jam-packed with all sorts of interesting data, and well-worth a read.

But how should we interpret these feelings and findings? And, on a more philosophical level, is the Buddha right?

Our 10-month investigation America the Gutted — which will hit GlobalPost on Oct. 15 — offers some clues.

First, there can be no doubt that this great economic shift from West to East has affected the lives of many middle-class Americans. It has also greatly influenced people living in China.

We have met countless people across the United States whose jobs are now being done by Chinese workers. They are, naturally, concerned about these developments.

“I wanted to keep a nice steady job until I retired,” one US ironworker told GlobalPost. “What I want to do now is not get laid off anymore.”

We have also met workers in China, many of whom are today working long, tiring hours and who have little sympathy for what this trend means in America.

“Their quality of life is much higher than here,” one Chinese ironworker said. “[Americans] have better welfare and the lowest income there is much higher than here. I feel those workers don’t actually need a job to live a good life.”

But while many individuals — on both sides of this equation — have been affected by this great macroeconomic shift, the bigger picture view is more complicated.

America’s $15 trillion economy, by far the world’s largest, is still about twice the size of China’s economy.

And while China certainly owns large amounts of US debt, that figure is only about 8 percent of the total— making Beijing the third-largest holder of debt, behind the US Social Security Trust Fund, and the US Federal Reserve.

Moreover, export-heavy China desperately needs to sell its products into the giant US market and therefore has a large stake in promoting US economic stability and strength.

In short, the US and Chinese economies are linked — at least for the foreseeable future.

So maybe another Buddha maxim is more appropriate for this shared economic plight:

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”

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