Clocking China's economic pace

As the Olympics highlight the physical speed of Chinese athletes like Liu Xiaoshenging, they also remind the world of the speed and power of China's economy.

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Kai Ryssdal: To some degree, the Olympics are about speed -- the fastest overall time, the quickest lap, the shortest sprint -- which fits right in in a place like China, where the pace of change can be dizzying.

But really how fast is fast? From Shanghai, Marketplace's Scott Tong reports on one enterprising economist who's actually tried to measure it.


Scott Tong: Just about everyone in Shanghai has as anecdote about how quickly things change here. Did you hear about that new restaurant? Or skyscraper? Or billionaire?

Here's a for instance from Stephen Green.

Stephen Green: Seven years ago, there was not a single Porsche or BMW on the streets. Now, every time you cross the road, you're almost killed by one.

Green is an economist with Standard Chartered Bank and he's developed a yardstick to measure China Speed. He takes GDP per capita; it's rocketed from a measly $56 per person in 1980 to $2,000 today. That growth rate is his economic speedometer.

Green: On average, it's like living four times as fast when you move to China. So if you spend 10 years in China, that's the equivalent of living 40 years in Europe or the U.S.

Or, think of the pace of your life as a movie -- say, the infamous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho." This is normal speed... And this would be China Speed.

The scary-fast pace of China creates business opportunities for folks who can keep up with it all. The startup company Eno sells streetwear. Its Shanghai stores host regular parties for the under-20 crowd, people like Momo Chen.

Momo Chen: I remember Kanye West-style glasses. They got real popular around the world and then a week later, they were big in Shanghai, but then they went out within a month.

Once Eno spots a trend and designs -- say, a t-shirt -- company founder Tor Peterson can have it on store shelves within three weeks. Peterson's also in a rush to open new stores. He says there's a retail land grab going on all across China.

Tor Peterson: So it's really all about getting out there and competing for those locations really fast. As an example, Nike's opening at least a store a day, if not two stores a day, in China today.

It's all dizzying, but keep in mind a couple things. First, not everyone in China experiences the crackle and pop of Shanghai. In fact, 800 million people still live in the countryside. And, this frenetic pace can create anxiety. 22-year-old grad student Edward Sheng wonders how long this boom can last.

Edward Sheng: Is this wealth explosion kind of a bubble? Is it going to be bursted somehow in three years? I have this kind of worry.

Still, many economists like Stephen Green think China can keep hurtling ahead. He says it's not far-fetched to assume 8 percent growth for the next 20 years.

Now remember, that's 20 years at China pace -- on fast-forward.

In the blur of Shanghai, I'm Scott Tong for Marketplace.

About the author

Scott Tong is a correspondent for Marketplace’s sustainability desk, with a focus on energy, environment, resources, climate, supply chain and the global economy.

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