There are two really fundamental challenges to coming to terms with China’s place in the global GDP rankings: ignorance and apathy. We don’t know, and we don’t care.
First our ignorance: GDP is really hard to measure. Just look at the huge revisions routinely made to GDP reports for the United States or the Eurozone, where statistical agencies have better resources, and face less political interference, than their Chinese counterparts. The measurement issues affecting China’s GDP reports are notorious: My favorite quip about them comes secondhand from Tom Orlik, Bloomberg’s China economist, who told me he once heard from a Chinese local government official that the government measures the economy using fiscal revenue instead of GDP because “GDP is opinion, fiscal revenue is fact.”
Ranking China’s GDP against that of other countries is messier still, since you have to pick an exchange rate to convert this sketchily-measured aggregate into U.S. dollars. The U.N. International Comparison Project’s estimate of the purchasing power parity (PPP) exchange rate is the product of admirable and interesting research, but is still just one of many estimates. The Conference Board, where I used to work, was projecting in 2010 that, using their best estimate of a PPP exchange rate, China would overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in 2012.
Which takes us to the second challenge, our apathy. Say you prefer to use a market exchange rate to compare China's economy with that of the United States instead of messing around with PPP’s, which would make its economy around two thirds of the size of the economy of the United States. So what? China would still be superlative in many ways: the world’s largest producer and consumer of steel, the largest consumer of energy, the largest importer of soybeans, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
Regardless of whether China makes a smooth transition to domestically-oriented growth or makes a hard landing, its footprint is such that focusing on GDP, or growth, has become a distraction from more fundamental issues. Damien Ma and I collectively call these scarcity: insufficient natural resources to feed an investment- and energy-intensive economy; insufficient land to produce the food Chinese consumers demand; a shrinking labor supply that forces wages up, squeezes low-end manufacturers, and pushes the economy out of export-oriented industries. There is more insight to be gained from thinking about these issues, in our opinion, than in wondering whether China becomes the world’s largest economy today, five years from now, or five years ago.