By John W. Schoen, msnbc.com
BEIJING — On a sultry September morning, in a brightly lit, air-conditioned Wal-Mart at the New World Shopping Center in Beijing's Chaoyang district, the search is on for everyday low prices.
Shoppers stroll past bright red price signs adorned with large yellow numbers and the familiar six-point asterisk. The 1970s hit “Seasons in the Sun” wafts through speakers in the store. On the wall beyond the checkout lines, the faces of 16 Wal-Mart employees, their photos arranged in an inverted pyramid, smile down at paying customers.
“The managers are at the bottom of the pyramid, supporting and maintaining a balance for the rest of the pyramid,” a caption explains. “They listen to the associates, guide, support and encourage and provide opportunities for every associate to be successful. They are the servant leaders of Wal-Mart.”
China's own economic pyramid has become taller and steeper, forcing the government's “servant leaders” to scramble to keep a promise to China's 1.3 billion people that their society will remain in balance. If that balance is compromised, the result could be a wave of social upheaval not seen since the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests of 1989.
Over the past 30 years, China’s red-hot economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, reshaped the global economy and given rise to a new power on the global stage. But that breakneck growth has also created an expanding wealth gap, major environmental problems, widespread corruption, a growing imperative to innovate and popular pressure for political reforms.
This country's “experiment” with capitalism can safely be deemed a success. China's economy, which lay in ruins in the late 1970s after the failed Cultural Revolution, has developed faster than any in history. China has emerged as a growing economic, political and military power.
But as this phase of China's economic development draws to an end, a new phase has begun. Call it China 2.0.
China’s Communist Party recently wrapped up four days of meetings to develop the country's next 5-year development plan, set to begin next year. In a communiqué, the central committee pledged "major breakthroughs in economic restructuring" to "maintain stable and relatively fast economic growth,” according Xinhua, the state-run news agency.
But even China’s leaders worry about growing too fast. Premier Wen Jiabao said in March the expansion is "unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable." To address that, the next five-year plan incorporates reforms already under way and charts a roadmap designed to keep the economy from veering off the track.
Read more of John Shoen's report on the state of China's red hot economy and where its headed: West get ready, here comes China 2.0