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China this year became the world's second-largest economy, but the U.S. gross domestic product remains more than two and a half times bigger than China's, according to the International Monetary Fund. On a per capita basis, the advantage is nearly 11-to-1. China's economy has grown much faster than the U.S. for years, however, and Beijing has amassed an enormous surplus in its international accounts while accumulating huge amounts of U.S. government debt.
Follow-up interviews suggest that Americans have such trends in mind when they cite China as the top economy. "They obviously are lending the United States a lot of money," said Kim Lomas, a kindergarten teacher in Naples, Fla. "And they seem to be exporting a lot to our country. It seems like everything I pick up says 'Made in China' on it." Scherer worries about China's edge in building things: "They're catching up to the U.S. as far as manufacturing," he says. "And I just see that trend continuing." Rigby frets about America's reliance on China to purchase its government debt. "China will one day knock on the White House door and ask us to pay up or take over," she says.