Editor's Plate: Random Notes From China

Aug. 27, 2010
On stevia, curing the world's ills and entering ‘the China century.'

Traveling outside of the U.S. or Canada is a wonderful and educational experience no matter where you go. It reminds one that the world does not revolve around the U.S. (or Canada), and in many ways the globe is tilting toward the east.

I'm writing this on an eight-hour bus ride between Bengbu and Qingdao in eastern China, the distance merely punctuating the enormity of this country. And diversity. More than 24 hours ago we left the modernity of Shanghai, with its seemingly unfettered desire (and ability) to develop and grow into "the world's financial center," as some of the city's promotional materials proclaim.

While we were on some perfectly modern highways, several of which have adopted that Western aggravation called toll booths, we're now on back roads, most paved but some made of dirt or gravel, but all very passable. We are, after all, heading toward farm country to see how that sweet little bush stevia grows.

This is my first trip to mainland China, and admittedly it comes under the sponsorship of one of the world's largest manufacturers and distributors of that new (to the U.S.) sweetener. GLG Life Tech wants to impress upon us how it controls the process from seed to shelf. Now kind of into its second generation of stevia, GLG is cultivating plants that grow bigger and faster and have more of the sweetness and other desirable characteristics and fewer of the problematic ones. The company also has its own extraction facilities and final refineries.

There's no doubt they want to be there when stevia hits the big time – which it still hasn't done. While the revenue could be enormous, Luke Zhang (known as "Dr. Luke"), chairman and CEO, talks of how his company's interest in stevia is as much about saving the world from obesity and diabetes as it is about making money. And with his background (a Ph.D. in pharmacology from Vanderbilt University, as well as pharmaceutical and undergrad medical degrees from China) he sounds convincing. He's seen the general debilitating effects of obesity, as we all have, but he also says he's seen first-hand patients with amputations or blindness that resulted from diabetes. "Stevia can be the solution to obesity and diabetes, even to cardiovascular disease, cancer," he told us during a dinner.

Back on the bus, Bengbu is little more than a main street with one big hotel and seemingly 1960s-era buildings, reasonably large for a town this size. But less than a block in either direction from Main Street, the roads and buildings deteriorated rapidly into huts and vendors' stalls.

One remarkable sight along the drive here was how many primitive huts in the middle of nowhere had solar-heated hot water systems on their roofs. Maybe it's because they were in the middle of nowhere; this is probably the only way to get heat and hot water. Most of them look like they don't have electricity.

Qingdao – which the West named Tsingtao, and which still sticks because of its famous beer – is a second-tier city by Chinese standards: it has "only" about 3 million, or a total of 7.5 million in its metro area, both figures slightly larger than my hometown Chicago. That puts it way down the list of China's largest cities, at No. 18. It made a little name for itself when China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. Qingdao's International Sailing Center in Fushan Bay, 500 miles from host city Beijing, was the scene of the Olympic sailing competitions.

Everyone recognizes the names Shanghai (with a metro population of 17 million) and Beijing (13 million) but right behind is lesser-known Guangzhou (or is it just less-known to me?) with 12 million. China has more than 160 cities with more than a million people.

Since I've been back, in early August, China passed Japan as the world's second-biggest economy. Japan's nominal GDP was $1.286 trillion in the April-to-June quarter compared with $1.335 trillion for China. After three decades of blistering growth, China is on a trajectory to overtake the U.S. as the world's largest economy as early as 2020. It passed the U.S. last year as the world's biggest auto market and Germany as the biggest exporter.

Even before this trip, I mentioned to my kids that they likely will grow up in a world in which America is a revered but second-rate world power. It wouldn't be the end of the world, but we probably will have to step down from world dominance, as Great Britain did in the first half of the 20th Century. The past 100 years certainly was "the American century," but the 21st Century appears destined to belong to China.

I don't know how I would react to that fact, when it becomes fact, and with 50 years behind me now, I may not have to. But I wonder how my children will. I wonder how people of my generation in Britain felt on the subject. Or if they even considered it. Or if it's typical American hubris that even makes me think all this matters.

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