Of course, there have been many momentous events since the late Deng Xiaoping began to creak open the "big door" in 1978. But never has the gravitational pull of the Middle Kingdom's economy been so keenly felt as now.
When stock and commodity markets around the world tumbled in late April and early May, concern over China's future was often cited as the reason. Investors were scared that Beijing would raise interest rates, that the world's third largest trader would start to import less, that Asia's locomotive economy was running out of steam and that, maybe, the whole Chinese economic edifice was nothing but a shimmering mirage.
But investors should not despair. China's influence on world commodity, metal, shipping and energy prices witnessed over the past 18 months was merely a dress rehearsal. The hunger of China is no chimera; its appetite is conditioned by forces that will churn for decades to come – long after the current market rout is forgotten.
The world's most populous country is undergoing an industrial revolution at warp speed. The per capita average income last year rose above US$1,000 – a key level beyond which consumer spending takes off and credit multipliers click in. Infrastructure needs remain ravenous – for example, some 42GW of power generation capacity – or the entire installed capacity of the UK – is to be built this year in China and then again in 2005. Rail, port and airport capacity falls woefully short of demand, indicating a need for future investment.
Even the areas of the economy that are regarded as weak may not be as pallid as the official figures suggest. For instance, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) says officially that services contribute just one third of gross domestic product, but privately officials at the NBS concede that this may be a gross understatement. It certainly appears so to anyone who regularly walks the streets of China's cities and sees service oriented offices and shops everywhere. If services account for a larger share of GDP than the official figures suggest, then investment must account for a smaller proportion. That may help ease the concerns of investors transfixed by China's overheated investment figures.
Even if you don't buy the argument about services now, in the future you will have to. At current rates of urbanization, some 300 million people will have moved from the countryside to the cities by 2020. When they get there, they are going to have to find something to do.