Some Basics on China

china-flag The comment thread on my piece on Tom Friedman’s authoritarian fantasies regarding China prompt me to point out some very basic data on China that often get ignored in general discussions of the country and its economy.

Yes, it is true that China has had remarkable growth in its economy in recent years.  Indeed, in raw terms, it now has the second largest national economy in the world behind the US (third if one counts the EU as one economic unit).

Here are the top five:

per capita
per capita rank
1. EU $14,510,000,000,000 $32,600 41.
2. USA $14,260,000,000,000 $46,400 11.
3. China $8,789,000,000,000 $6,600 128.
4. Japan $4,137,000,000,000 $32,600 42.
5. India $3,560,000,000,000 $3,100 164.

However, a statistic that is better for comparative purposes is GDP per capita (or per person) noted also in the table.  This takes the overall economic output of the entire economy and divides it by the population giving us a measure of the amount of economic output per person (recognizing that some people produce nothing, indeed are even net drains on the economy, while others produce quite a lot).  As such, it rather easy to see why the US, Japan and EU are all clearly developed economies and why China and Indi are still developing.  For example when a large percentage of one’s economy are peasants living more like it is the 19th, rather than 21st, century, it has a rather dramatic impact on one’s GDP per capita.

Much talk has floated around for a while about the emerging economies and how they are going to displace the US and the EU—specifically the BRIC countries (Brazil, India and China).  For the sake of discussion, Brazil’s GDP is $ 2,025,000,000,000 (10th) and its GDP per capital is $10,200 (105th).  Of the three BRIC countries, it is actually the most developed in overall terms, but still has a large amount of devastating poverty and has one of the world’s most mal-apportioned wealth distributions.

In all of the BRIC cases there is a severe disjuncture between sectors of their economies.  Yes, the residents of Beijing, Shanghai, etc., live in the First World, but millions upon millions outside the urban centers still live in the Third (if not Fourth) World.  This is true in India and Brazil as well, and really in all three cases, not all urban dwellers live in developed circumstances.  This is especially true in India and Brazil (I am less certain of the situation in China).

In short:  China is neither a good case for comparison to the USA (please note, Mr. Friedman) nor is it poised to Take Over the World, as some fear it is about to do.

Note:  All figures are 2009 estimates in PPP (price purchasing parity).

Source: The CIA World Factbook: GDP per capita: click, and GDP:  click.

FILED UNDER: Asia, Europe, Latin America, World Politics, , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Guess you don’t know about the political prisoners still in lock up in China. Or that they have FORCED abortion. While China is not the most repressive country on earth. They are very very far from the most liberated. So Stevie, if it is such a paradise, why is it you have not taken you and yours there?

  2. Zalsdorf,

    I’m struggling to understand how you could see Steve’s post as calling China “liberated” in any respect.

  3. Did you actually,you know, read the post?

    I have no idea how you got the idea that I was calling it a paradise.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    I missed the part where Steve said he thought China was a paradise.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    Incidentally, a couple of other facts: the number one manufacturing country? Still the US, though not by much.

    We are also still the third largest exporter after China which barely edges out Germany. We just about double Japan’s exports. The US, Germany and Japan are all high labor cost countries, and together represent more than double China’s exports with about 40% of the population.

    Also fascinating? Tiny Netherlands exports more than a third of what China does, with fewer people than it would take to fill a Chinese metro area.

    Fear the Dutch!

  6. Holy Crap. Zelsdorf has hit a new high (or low?) in absolute idiocy. I doff my hat to you, sir.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m more worried for China than about it. The vaunted Chinese leadership is creating problems I’m not sure they have ready solutions for. They’ve produced tens of thousands more college-educated Chinese. Unfortunately, they’ve produced far fewer jobs for college-educated Chinese. Now they have several cohorts of young college-educated Chinese while most of the jobs can be filled by illiterate peasants. Not precisely a formula for content.

    They’ve reduced the birthrate and produced a generation of solo children who are responsible for supporting their parents in their old age. Women of child-bearing age are also the most sought-after factory workers.

    Their land management sucks; their skies, waters, and countryside are tragically polluted, crop yields have about reached their limit. As Michael put it, I’d rather have our cards than the ones the Chinese are holding.

  8. Franklin says:

    Are people still actually reading Zels’ posts? He’s a troll without the moderate wit of Triumph.

  9. As Michael put it, I’d rather have our cards than the ones the Chinese are holding.


  10. Drew says:

    Perhaps this is boring.

    But put Dave’s comments on a plaque, and this is the definitive high level China review for at least the next 5 years.

  11. Neil Hudelson says:


    I’m fascinated by him, as I think he actually believes, wholeheartedly, what he spews.

  12. tom p says:

    I’m struggling to understand how you could see Steve’s post as calling China “liberated” in any respect.

    Doug, it’s easy, you just have to enter ZR’s world (for only 2 seconds, more that that would twist your fragile mind beyond the breaking point)

    Steve: thanx for the reality check. But here is where I lose it (every time):

    If the US produces so much more than China, Why do we continue to run a trade deficit? I know… a lot of factors… probably way too deep for my simpleton mind…. But I would really like an explanation I can follow.

  13. tom p says:

    A clarification: Why do we run a trade deficit when China doesn’t? Do we consume that much?