China Derangement: Exaggerating an Economic Yellow Peril

Recalling previous panic over a charging Japanese economic juggernaut that since failed to hold true, Reason’s Ronald Bailey attempts to defuse all-too-familiar and increasingly popular fears of American decline relative to China:

“The U.S. could lose its status as the world’s biggest economic power within five years,” reported The Daily Mail in April. The Mail article was based on calculations released by the International Monetary Fund projecting that total Chinese GDP, adjusted for purchasing power, will surpass U.S. GDP by 2016.

Can that be? Let’s do the math: China’s total GDP is around $6 trillion today. Assuming 10 percent GDP growth for the next 20 years, China’s GDP would rise to $40 trillion. If the U.S. economy grew at, say, 3 percent a year, total GDP would be $27 trillion. Back in 2007, before the financial crisis, the investment bank Goldman Sachs issued a report projecting that Chinese GDP would be $26 trillion in 2030, compared to $23 trillion for the U.S. It bears noting that current Chinese purchasing power per capita is about $6,000, compared to $46,000 for Americans.

But it is unlikely that China’s economy can sustain 10 percent annual growth for two more decades. Economic history suggests that once countries catch up with leading economies in terms of technologies and business management, growth slows down. Consider what would happen if Chinese growth slows to 5 percent. Assuming sustained respective 5 percent and 3 percent growth rates for China and the U.S. for the next two decades, China’s total GDP would reach just $16 trillion, not $34 trillion. In 30 years, it would grow to $26 trillion, by which time U.S. GDP would be $36 trillion. In 40 years, China’s GDP would be $42 trillion, compared to our $49 trillion. All in all, it would take China a half-century to catch up.

Indications of a Chinese economic slowdown have already begun to surface, as China seeks to balance a decrease in manufacturing and exports – the longtime fuel behind its rapid economic growth – with an emphasis on domestic demand.

See also previous CDT coverage of China’s rise, including reflections by Bloomberg’s Jonathan Alter after a recent trip to China and a piece published last week in The New York Times by Tsinghua University’s Yan Xuetong on “How China Can Defeat America.”

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