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OPINION: China's economy is gaining on U.S.

Adam Hanft is co-author of "The Dictionary of the Future: The Words, Terms and Trends That Define the Way We'll Live, Work and Talk."

Huge media moments like China surpassing Japan to become the world's second largest economy have more symbolic than economic import.

After all, the state of the world economy is no different today than it was yesterday. But America's emotional state has profoundly changed.

Yes, we've known for a long time that the Japanese economy was stalled and post-mature, that their culture had become sclerotic, that their xenophobia and lack of entrepreneurial energy had rendered them noncompetitive in the 21st century. And we've known for a long time that China's ferocious growth is changing the global economic picture.

But now that China is officially breathing down our necks - with some estimates that it will surpass the size of the American economy by 2025 - the reality slaps us hard in the face.

What's more, this slap comes at a particularly vulnerable moment for America. Unemployment is high, growth is slow, entire industries have been wiped out and entire regions are in decline. Our mood is grim; recent research shows that Americans are convinced by more than three to one that the nation is heading in the wrong direction. Millions of people believe their kids will be less successful than they were.

Suddenly, China's so-called authoritarian capitalism is looking good to us. While our politics are a dysfunctional partisan food fight, China manages to build thousands of factories, a vast web of high-speed rail, and transform the world's most populous nation with dazzling speed. They're producing PhDs and educating their population at a pace that puts us to shame. They're feeding their people, while a recent study found that one in five Americans suffers from food insecurity.

Americans are not used to living with a sense of limits and a tightly leashed future. We are the people of Manifest Destiny, not accustomed to looking over our shoulder at a powerful economic engine that threatens our primacy.

How we react to this is going to be fascinating to watch. It could provoke a desire for our version of China's strong leadership, which trades off individual rights (and sensitivities) for economic growth. Some of the populist frustrations we're seeing could lead to that, just as Huey Long and other dangerously strong figures emerged during the desperation of the Great Depression.

It would be tragic if we channeled our anxiety and fear into a national negativity, one that also includes elevated anti-immigrant sentiment - as if it is illegal Mexicans who are rendering us less globally competitive. In the '50s, the big debate in American politics was "Who lost China?" More than 50 years later, it's likely that the new debate will be "Who's responsible for us losing to China?"

It would be far more productive if the Chinese ascension became the 21st century equivalent of the Sputnik launch that functioned as a national wake-up call. America shouldn't worry about the Chinese, but about our own capacity to rebuild our infrastructure and manufacturing sector, to educate our young people and retrain our workforce for the jobs of today and tomorrow. Some are reporting that employers can't fill many thousands of open positions due to a lack of qualified applicants.

It's inevitable that at some point in the not-too-distant future, America will have to come to grips with not being the world's largest economy. By that time, though, another generation will be running America - younger, more ethnically diverse, less likely to be freaked out by becoming No. 2 in the world, more likely to be able to shift its focus from quantity to quality.

The Chinese have a famously long view of history, and we have an equally famous short-term view. Each country has arguably been served well by its cultural predisposition. But it's also arguable that in the future, the one who needs to change the most is us.

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