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A Chinese woman lets fly a toy shaped like a bird in front of a giant Chinese flag in Beijing

Ng Han Guan

Ask anyone to name the Asian economic powerhouse that has taken the world by storm, and the answer is almost certain to be China. Rewind 25 years, however, and the response would have been quite different.

"In the 1980s, Japan glittered, it sparkled, it seemed to be the future," says Michael Donnelly, professor emeritus and founding director of the Asian Institute at the University of Toronto.

It was a period, he recalls, when sake in Toyko came with gold flakes in it. Japan's share of the auto market had gone from three or four per cent to almost 30 per cent in just a decade. Bankers predicted Japan's economy would surpass the U.S.'s within a decade - that is, until Japan's housing bubble burst, prompting a period of rapid decline in the 1990s.

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Although differences between the two countries are vast, China now seems to have 1980s Japan's unstoppable momentum. It surpassed Japan as the world's second-largest economy last quarter, capping off 30 years of dazzling growth since free-market reforms began.

The average growth rate of GDP per worker has been between seven and eight per cent over the 30 years since China's economic reforms - even higher than that of Japan during its rise, says Prof. Xiaodong Zhu, an expert on China's economy and macroeconomics at the University of Toronto. Many are now certain that China, whose gross domestic product hit $1.337-trillion in the last quarter, will one day become number one - and it certainly may. But history has shown that predictions for anything as complex as a country's economy should be taken with a grain of salt.

As China has soared to become a world power, it has touched off both admiration and cultural anxiety - much the way Japan did in the 1980s.

Like shoulder pads and leopard print, Japan was in vogue. Big in Japan was Alphaville's first single. Cool American kids played Nintendo and watched Voltron, a Japanese-American cartoon show, while their parents nervously read Michael Crichton's Rising Sun, a paranoiac fantasy about ruthless Japanese businessmen taking over U.S. industry.

"In the 1980s, the Japanese were represented in American media as systematic and a bit ruthless, hermetic socially," says Bart Testa, an expert on Asian cinema at the University of Toronto. "There was a degree of awe and fear of the industrial accomplishment of the Japanese."

There is a whiff of that same xenophobic fear of the "yellow peril," the worry that "they" will take over, in some Western reactions to China's success, though it has been more muted, a sign that such explicit racism has become less acceptable in a more global era.

China has some superficial similarities to 1980s Japan, such as potential housing problems and a greying work force. The similarities end there, however, between democratic, solidly capitalist Japan and China, where much of the population is still destitute. A typical image of 1980s Japan showed its highly sophisticated robots assembling a new generation of smaller, more efficient cars.

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This strikes a contrast with China's football-sized factory floors, where young people bend over tables, in hairnets and latex gloves, churning out everything from iPods to designer T-shirts and plastic trinkets - an image immortalized in a famous series by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. That image, with its uneasy echoes of the west's own dark industrial era, has come to sum up all our mixed feelings about the new world power.

Yet recent strikes and work stoppages in China's coastal factories have led to speculation that, as wages climb, the country is making the transition from a well of cheap labour for foreign firms to a market of newly affluent consumers and assertive workers.

"You cannot have cheap labour forever," says Prof. Zhu, adding that the passing of this era will be good for China.

In the end, China will be well-equipped to handle economic problems, such as its non-performing loans, says University of Toronto economist Loren Brandt, an expert on the country's economy.

We may be writing songs about China for decades to come.

Here's a quick look at the sea change that has taken place in Asia.

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Japan: 1980s-early 1990s

Fresh from the success of Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton pens the anxiety-ridden Rising Sun in 1992, a dystopian thriller that depicts ruthless, ravenous Japanese industrialists, for whom "business is war," trying to take over American corporations. The 1993 movie version starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes tones down the paranoia.

According to The Vapors' frontman David Fenton, their 1980 hit single Turning Japanese - the one that opens with an "oriental" riff - wasn't about him learning calligraphy. It was about the strangeness of being young and going through changes - "Japanese" apparently being a synonym for "strange." Paging Edward Said.

After the success of Rising Sun, Tom Clancy takes a crack at portraying some power-hungry Japanese businessmen of his own in Debt of Honor.

The 1994 film The Karate Kid gives America one of its most enduring Japanese characters in Mr. Miyagi, played by Californian actor Pat Morita. Mr. Miyagi becomes a template for a stock character in many films and TV shows to come: the wise Asian elder with a mystical aura.

Unemployed Detroit auto worker Ronald Ebens beats Vincent Chin, a young Chinese-American engineer, to death with a baseball bat in 1982 - because he believes Mr. Chin is Japanese. The case touches off a firestorm of debate about the declining Detroit auto industry, blue-collar unemployment and xenophobia.

Japanese company Nintendo rises to dominate the emergent video game market, making characters Mario and Luigi into household names. Any respectable 1980s kid either has a console - or begs for one incessantly.

Voltron, a Japanese-American television cartoon about evil-fighting giant robot lions is adapted from Japanese anime shows and becomes popular among young American audiences during the 1980s.

A 1980s avant-garde New Romantic chart-topping U.K. band is named Japan.

Big in Japan, the debut 1984 single by Alphaville, is based on the phrase used to describe artists who are successful abroad but not in North America or the U.K.

China / late 1990s-2000s

Canadian Edward Burtynsky's large-scale photographs of China's factory workers, rusted shipyards and fields of toxic electronic waste capture some of the staggering effects of the country's economic boom on the environment and society. A 2007 Canadian documentary, Manufactured Landscapes, follows Burtynsky as he takes his photos.

1997 is all about Tibet, as two movies about the region are released just months apart. Kundun, directed by Martin Scorsese, tackled the life and writings of the Dalai Lama, who is depicted as a saintly figure. Seven Years in Tibet stars Brad Pitt as Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, who wrote about his experiences as a tutor to the young Dalai Lama before the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

Chinese Democracy is the name of the long-anticipated 2008 album by Guns N' Roses, their first in 15 years. The title track was reportedly inspired by Kundun and the Tibetan cause.

During the June 2009 riots between Uyghur Muslims and Han Chinese, Twitter becomes an important source of photos and first-hand accounts of the violence in Xinjiang province. One photo of an elderly woman refusing to yield to security forces is compared to another iconic image: that of the lone man standing in front of tanks at Tiananmen Square.

It's hard not to feel dwarfed by the sheer scale of Chinese accomplishment displayed at the Beijing Summer Olympics' XL-sized opening ceremonies in 2008, in which an army of 15,000 tessellated drummers, human kites, martial artists, dancers and even calligraphers perform in lockstep.

In The China Probrem, an episode of South Park, Cartman becomes anxious after watching the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Summer Olympics and forms an anti-Chinese group, the American Liberation Front, bent on preventing a Chinese "invasion."

In the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi is replaced by Jackie Chan's Mr. Han, who teaches martial arts to a 12-year-old boy who moves to China. Mr. Han doesn't do karate - he does kung fu.

Mao kitsch emerges and becomes wildly popular, with T-shirts, mugs and baby onesies with his portrait and ironic phrases such as "Mao is my homeboy" and "Chairman Meow" - the latter becoming an Internet meme.

A new breed of Chinese artists break from government-mandated orthodoxy and embrace satire, placing images of Mao on Quaker Oats cans and ping-pong tables (Zhang Hongtu) or painting grimacing self-portraits (Yue Minjun).

Chinese actors Jackie Chan and Jet Li thrill audiences in martial arts movies such as Fearless and the Rush Hour trilogy.

Superstar athlete Yao Ming, who plays for the Houston Rockets, stands as the tallest player in the league.

Disney's animated movie Mulan, based on a Chinese poem, is released in 1998.

Sarah Barmak is a Toronto freelance writer.

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