China’s “biggests” come early, late or not at all

February 7, 2014

By Ethan Bilby and John Foley
The authors are Reuters Breakingviews columnists. The opinions expressed are their own.

China collects superlatives. In 2013, it added biggest goods trader, top red wine consumer and number one oil importer. Some “biggests” are a sign of investment potential, but others suggest inequality and inefficiency. Meanwhile, some of the most meaningful, like having the world’s dominant currency, still look a long way off.

Mainland oenophiles drank almost 1.9 billion bottles of red wine in 2013 according to Vinexpo. The country’s shoppers also made up the world’s largest grocery market for the third year, worth some $1 trillion according to IGD, and extended its lead as the biggest buyer of cars. Being the biggest is something to strive for in China. The opening of the world’s largest building in 2013, and plans for the world’s tallest skyscraper in Changsha, are part of a rich tradition of gigantomania.

The world’s most populous country should one day have markets and monuments to match. Becoming the biggest trading nation in 2013, for example, sounds appropriate. But some accolades have probably come too early, reflecting China’s unequal development. It’s not encouraging that China is the biggest consumer of gold, yet may have to wait until 2020 to be the largest market for medicines. Some get rich before the rest get healthy.

Other top spots may come too late. The country might already have been the biggest importer of foodstuffs like grains and sugar if it not for inefficient policies to promote self-sufficiency. Other biggests have come with downsides. Being the world’s top oil importer and coal consumer have helped China emit more carbon than any other country. While the number of Chinese consumers is unrivalled, some companies have come away disappointed – witness the recent pullback of Revlon and Tesco.

The most coveted superlatives are still elusive. Overtaking the United States as the biggest economy may take China until 2028, according to UK-based consultancy CEBR. It may take even longer for China’s currency, the yuan, to match its superpower status. This too will come with time, but in the meantime being a steady, sustainable number two is a perfectly respectable goal.

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