ShanghaiCorrida_art_257_20081218125702.jpgChina bulls (AP)

Who’s still a bull on China? OPEC. The oil cartel finally slashed its forecast for global oil demand next year, but it still sees China as the sole—and shining–bright spot in the global oil market.

OPEC cut its previous estimate for global oil demand by 1 million barrels a day, given the grim economic news in the U.S. and the subsequent “huge decline” in oil demand in developed countries. That’s the main reason OPEC announced its biggest-ever production cut this week.

China’s economy is showing signs of strain, too—like suddenly falling exports and declining industrial production. But OPEC seems to figure China will soldier on in a way the West won’t.

The cartel expects that even with all the economic headwinds, Chinese demand for oil will grow almost 4% next year. That’s an even a rosier projection than the International Energy Agency’s 3.5% forecast. And that’s only slightly below OPEC’s own 5.2% projection this summer, before financial markets imploded.

OPEC might believe that the Chinese economy is “decoupling” from the U.S., and is therefore less vulnerable to catching a cold from American sniffles. Or OPEC might be betting that Beijing’s nearly $600 billion stimulus package and other measures, like reduced prices for fuel, will be enough to shore up Chinese demand next year even as the rest of the world goes south.

But, like OPEC’s bet that it can finally get recalcitrant members to honor oil-production quotas, banking on Chinese immunity to the global economic slump seems a big bet indeed.