The results of the Pew Research Center survey do not reflect reality: America's economy remains well ahead of its closest rival. But it does highlight China's steadily rising public image amid rapid growth, as well as the erosion of the United States' status as the global superpower, especially after the 2008 financial crisis left it struggling with recession and high unemployment.
The 21-nation poll found that 41 per cent of people said China was the world's economic power, while 40 per centfavoured the U.S. Among the 14 nations that were asked the same question in 2008, the margin was wider: 45 per cent placed the U.S. on top four years ago, with just 22 per cent for China, but in the latest poll China was favoured 42 per cent to 36 per cent.
The trend was especially strong in Europe: 58 per cent of people in Britain saw China as the leading economy, versus just 28 per cent for the United States. Even in the U.S., respondents were about evenly divided on the question. Turkey and Mexico were the only countries where more than half of people consider the United States the leading economic power.
"Over the last few years, perceptions about the global economic balance of power have been shifting," Pew said in the report.
China passed Germany as the biggest exporter in 2009 and has overtaken Japan as the world's second-biggest economy. But its situation is complex: It is relatively poor by income per person, while the United States is among the richest. The United States is the global centre for the auto, computer, finance, aerospace and other industries.
China's competitive edge is its large pool of low-cost labour, but that is shrinking as wages rise and the Chinese population ages. The World Bank and the communist government's own advisers warn it must make basic changes to its economic strategy to boost productivity and keep incomes rising.
Those nuances are reflected in the Chinese public's more tempered views of their country in the Pew survey. Only 29 per cent of people interviewed saw it as the leading economy, versus 48 per cent for the United States.
The polls were nationally representative surveys conducted in March and April by 26,210 telephone or in-person interviews in 21 countries, including Brazil, Japan, India, France, Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan and the United States.
The survey also found that China's image has grown more negative over the past year in the United States, Japan and parts of Europe.
Across the 21 nations surveyed, the median percentage with positive views of China and the United States were about the same, at 49 per cent and 52 per cent, respectively. But Pew noted that overall figure concealed big differences in some countries. In Japan, 72 per cent saw the U.S. favourably, versus just 15 per cent for China. In Pakistan, 85 per cent saw China favourably while just 12 per cent said the same for the United States.Suggest a correction