The Chart That Explains Your World

by PM

22 July 2012, 1715 EDT

Everyone agrees China is a rising power. Some people think it can rise indefinitely; some people think its rise will decelerate; and some think that its rise is illusory. But it’s hard to put even the People’s Republic stellar growth rates into perspective without taking a longer view.

The chart above shows the ratios of Chinese to other countries’ GDP per capita. It’s based on painstaking work by Angus Maddison to reconstruct long time series about output. There are reasons to think that Maddison’s estimates before 1900 are a little speculative, but they are widely agreed to capture the broad picture fairly well.

Interpreting the chart is straightforward. The y-axis shows how many times richer each country or continent is than China. In 1960, for instance, the United States was about 20 times as rich per head as China, while Britain was about 15 times as rich and Japan and Russia about 8 times as rich. The chart is showing us, then, just how far behind the rest of the world China had slipped. And note that a lot of that is due to the early Communist regime; the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward are visible in the time trends as the post-World War II peaks in the ratios (since Chinese output fell dramatically as Western and Soviet output continued to rise).

Over the past 30 years, however, those ratios have plummeted. The United States and other developed countries are still much richer than China, but they are no longer vastly richer. Those falling ratios portend just how dramatic the shift in the global distribution of wealth, and of power, from the North Atlantic community will be.