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Is China's economy really in distress?

While this week's gyration in global stocks is seen by many as stemming from a troubling slowdown in Chinese growth, the country's problems also point to a more important shift that is easy to lose sight of in the whirl of market tickers: a country whose economic transformation is on overdrive.

Under this view, signs of distress in the world's second-largest economy -- from an overheated real estate sector and stock market bubble to mounting labor unrest -- are not evidence of decline, but rather the inevitable symptoms of China's shift toward a less centralized economy powered by upwardly mobile masses of consumers.

For years, after all, this is what China's leadership has promoted as a guiding principle of economic development, encouraged by the U.S. and other developed nations eager to tap into the planet's biggest market.

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Nicholas Lardy, an economist with the Peterson Institute for International Economics and an expert on China, says the country's recent stumbles show how quickly it is moving to hatch a new economy. And focusing only on China's industrial output to determine the health of its economy amounts to using "old metrics" that no longer reflect today's China, he said.

"The service sector is now driving growth," Lardy said, alluding to China's move away from a manufacturing-driven economy to one based on personal consumption, like the U.S.

Lardy notes that China's move this month to devalue its currency, the renminbi, so that it better reflects market conditions is something China's critics have demanded for years. The move also indicates China's wish to have its currency in the basket of global reserve currencies that now include the dollar, euro, pound sterling, and yen. The International Monetary Fund has praised China's recent currency moves and maintains the yuan is still not undervalued.

To be sure, the days of double-digit growth in China are almost certainly over, and it remains to be seen if the country's central planners can avoid a "hard landing" for the economy. But it is also easy to overstate China's economic woes, said Dan Kowalski, an economist with CoBank, which serves the U.S. agricultural sector, noting that China is today the largest foreign market for American farmers. U.S. exports to China account for just over 1 percent of America's GDP.

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"There's been a lot of anxiety about China over the last few weeks, but the reality is they are still growing twice as fast as we are here in the U.S.," Kowalski told CBS MoneyWatch.

More than twice as fast, if Chinese policy makers are to be believed. Beijing's most recent growth figures put gross domestic product this year at around 7 percent, compared with slightly over 2 percent for the U.S.

For U.S. farmers, whose exports to China have risen from just a couple billion dollars in 2000 to $25 billion in 2014, it is the rise of the massive Chinese middle class that holds the most promise. Consider that 35 years ago, 64 percent of China's population lived on just a dollar a day. Today, just 10 percent of Chinese households live in that kind of extreme poverty. Chinese wages have also been on the upswing. And unlike in the U.S., income inequality in China, while still high, has declined in recent years.

Equally significant has been the rising educational attainment and literacy rate for the entire population. In 1982, 79 percent of adult men were able to read; by 2010, over 97 percent were literate. For women the progress has been even more impressive, rising from 51 percent in 1982 to nearly 93 percent.

"They have invested massively in human capital," Lardy said.