Challenging China

There's Room at the Top

Red and green going head to head.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • The continued rise of China’s economic power could upset the established world order.
  • Facts


    • By the end of the year, China’s economy will be worth $17.6 trillion, the U.S.’s $17.4 trillion.
    • It is growing at 7 percent a year.
    • In terms of per capita income, China ranks 178th in the world.
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Only a decade ago, China’s march to global economic leadership was an abstract idea.

It was always clear that the day would come when the nation, with its enormous population, would eventually catch up with the United States. But it was hard to imagine how this new world with China as the No. 1 economic power would feel.

By the end of the year, China will have produced goods and services valued at $17.6 trillion, measured in terms of purchasing poweR, surpassing the U.S. with $17.4 trillion.

Now we know what it feels like: completely normal.

It may not remain that way because China’s economic ascent hasn’t come close to reaching its zenith, particularly in terms of per-capita economic performance. With a mere $11,868 per capita, China ranks 178th in the world behind nations such as Turkmenistan, Serbia and the Dominican Republic. The United States, in contrast, generates $53,000 per capita.

Some people like to use the per capita figures to suggest China isn’t all that powerful, a stance that has the effect of a tranquilizer and suggests that everyone can ease up on their competitive exertions.

With a mere $11,868 per capita, China ranks 178th in the world behind nations such as Turkmenistan and Serbia.

But it can also be a stimulant. How powerful will China be if and when it matches the U.S.’s present per capita income? And what would it mean politically, bearing in mind the historical rule of thumb is that a nation’s political influence grows rapidly when it achieves economic dominance.

Consider Great Britain, which built its economic power before becoming a world power in the 18th and 19th centuries. Then, deeply in debt, it passed the mantle to the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Now just 70 years later, American dominance is nearing its end.

Most of the countries in Southeast Asia consider China to be the most influential major power, albeit reluctantly. In Africa, too, there are many nations that describe China as their closest ally. We too easily forget how much influence China can still achieve, even as we lament its slowing growth. This is despite the fact that its current growth rate of seven percent in absolute terms is more than the 10 percent it was ten years ago.

Certainly, China’s development has areas of limitation. There is no guarantee of a linear rise. The necessary political reforms pursued by President Xi Jinping are risky because he is taking on almost everyone and everything at the same time. And no one knows, for example, if there is even enough water to support its projected economic growth: it is not only plants that stop growing without water.

China’s combination of world’s largest economy and low per capita income should motivate us to concentrate on the essentials. We must mesh our economies as closely as possible with it, while at the same time ensuring the world order is not dominated by one country, regardless of which one it is.


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