BEIJING — China's official reaction this week to its latest milestone — surpassing Japan to become the world's second-largest economy — has been more modest than boastful.
Rather than flaunting its newfound status, China, the world's most populous nation but still roughly the 100th in per capita income, is going through contortions to show that it really isn't that successful at all.
Since Monday, when Japan released economic data showing its gross domestic product for the second quarter had slipped behind China's, Beijing has been trumpeting its shortcomings. In news conferences, on talk shows and in editorial pages, commentators have hastened to pooh-pooh the statistics, saying they are wrong, misleading or meaningless. They compare China not to Japan or the United States, but to Albania — both have annual per capita income of about $3,600.
This has not been a time for the Communist Party to boast about the fact that China has chalked up annual growth rates averaging 9 percent for the last two decades.
"There is little celebration in this land," sniffed the English-language China Daily in an editorial on Thursday. "We have no time to be intoxicated by big numbers."
At a briefing Tuesday in Beijing, a foreign ministry official, Zhu Honghai, gave a lengthy enumeration of China's weaknesses — rural poverty, social disparities, low levels of investment in education, medical care, social security. Commerce Ministry spokesman Yao Jian advised reporters that "there are 150 million people who can't even reach the standard of $1 per day.... That's a fact about China."
What, beyond truthfulness, is behind all the self-deprecation?
By insisting that it is still a "poor, developing nation" — a phrase often repeated like a mantra from Beijing — China is also able to beg off demands in negotiations over issues such as climate change and trade balance.
"You have this strange contradiction. China is proud of what it has accomplished and wants to be a power, if not a superpower, but it feels if it is no longer seen as a developing country that would harm its interests," said Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing.