A rolling economic miracle called China

Shenzhen, November 9|:

Li Wen, a mother of two, is on a shopping trip that is transforming the planet. As she pushes a double-decker trolley through her local Wal-Mart, the Shenzhen businesswoman looks the epitome of the global consumer. The goods she picks — rice, chicken, tofu, cooking oil — are not that different from those that a shopper in London or Tokyo might chose, nor is the amount, Renminibi (rmb) 1,500, she spends.

It may be hard to imagine a less exotic image of the orient but this is the new China dream. And by achieving it, Li and her trolley are at the vanguard of one of the most drama-tic developments of our age: the rise of China from an inward-looking agricultural state to an industrial behemoth that is sco-uring the planet for energy, food and minerals.

After 25 years of rapid development, China has established itself as the workshop of the world. Now it is moving towards a new phase — from mass producer to superconsumer — that could lead to one of the biggest redestributions of the planet’s resources in history.

A global shopping expedition is already under way. Its buyers include the Chinese businesspeople who have started to prospect in the Sahara an-d Siberian tundra; the tra-ders who are dictating world prices for commo dities and shipping, and the diplomats and military attaches who have been sent on a geostrategic charm offensive.

After famine, anarchy and war, few could begrudge China a taste of the good life. But the change is on a frightening scale. As well as being the biggest business opportunity in decades, it poses an enormous risk for the global environment and balance of power. For many products, China has recently overtaken the US as the world’s biggest consumer, and its appetite can only grow. While the living standards of the vast majority of the 1.3 billion population still lag far behind those of developed countries, the government’s priority is to create hundreds of millions more consumers.

Given the poverty in the countryside, where many families subsist on less than $1 a day, China has a long way to go to catch up with the west. But Li is testimony to the speed at which things can change. Ten years ago, she shopp-ed at a local street market, rarely spending more than 10 sterling pounds a week and carried her shopping home on foot.

Today, she splashes out 10 times that amount on food and 600 sterling pounds a month on clothes. Since moving to the boom city of Shenzhen in southern China, the family’s business, which deals in real estate and share trading, has funded a three-storey villa worth rmb 6 million, a new Volkswagen Touareg, and travel overseas at least three times per year.

“Compared to 10 years ago, I feel I know more about how to lead a good life,” she says. It is a lesson being learned all over the country but especially in Shenzhen. No other city has benefited more from the embrace of globalisation. When Deng Xiaoping launched China’s opening-up policy in 1978, Shenzhen was a fishing village. Today, it is a free-trade zone of skyscrapers, hangar-sized factories and malls. The population has surged to 12 million and with income levels twice the national average, municipal officials boast that their city is China’s richest.

This wealth has been generated by Shenzhen’s role as a checkout counter for goods arriving and leaving the Pearl River Delta in the freighters and supertankers. The Yantian port, which was marshland 10 years ago, now handles more than 12 million containers a year.

The story is the same along the east coast. Last year, Shanghai overtook Rotterdam as the biggest port in the world.