Chinese to the World: Ignore Our GDP

The U.S.-based World Bank grabbed everybody’s attention by announcing that China was poised to displace the United States as the world’s largest economy based on purchasing power. But a survey of the Chinese web shows people at home aren’t buying it.

The startling report, released April 30 by the International Comparison Program, which is hosted by the World Bank, concluded that China’s economy was much bigger and faster growing than expected, and was also likely to eclipse the United States by the end of the year. (The United States has held the top spot since 1872.) The U.K.-based Financial Times wrote that the report revolutionized “the picture of the world’s economic landscape, boosting the importance of large middle-income countries.” But China’s National Bureau of Statistics declined to publish the report and expressed reservations about its methodology, and the Times reported that Chinese authorities even wanted it thrown out. Meanwhile, Chinese online reaction, rather than crowing, has ranged from incredulity to scorn. For ordinary people, the projection contrasts starkly with their everyday reality.

Chinese state media initially steered clear of the news, prompting news portal to round up overseas coverage instead, cobbling together translated excerpts of coverage by the Times and Washington Post. That article drew hundreds of comments, including one posted by a reader from the inland province of Henan who wondered aloud how anyone could get excited over numbers based on a “bubble” economy. “In China, the money that it takes to buy one house could buy several houses overseas, but our salaries aren’t one-fifth of theirs,” the user wrote. “Is it worth being proud of this kind of sham GDP?”

Reactions were similar on Weibo, China’s leading Twitter-like social media platform, with many complaining that China was a rich country with a poor population. “Economic figures may present an encouraging picture, but the economic realities are a different story,” wrote one reader in reaction to a piece in financial news magazine Caixin. “The economy can’t just enrich the rich, or it’s not a healthy economy.”

Others seemed concerned that a place at the top would send other nations to China with hat in hand. “Once you’re the richest, then everyone wants to borrow from you,” one wrote. Many worried that China might be puffed up by the idea of overtaking the United States and fail to realize how much work remains in order to catch up with other developed nations. “China, don’t want to lose sight of yourself because of this media commentary,” wrote one Weibo user. “The best China is still a ways off.”

State media ultimately decided to push back on the report as well, albeit after netizens had led the way. On May 4, official Xinhua News Agency published an analysis arguing that economic parity with developed nations was in fact still decades away. “From economic quality to standards of living, China is still a developing nation,” it said. “To catch up with the world’s developed nations, China has a long way yet to go.” A May 5 article on the website of state-run China Radio Network argued that the findings were “more the product of statistical research” than reality. Despite aggregate numbers, the article insisted, “development is imbalanced, per capita [that is, per person] GDP is low, and China’s status as the world’s largest developing nation has not changed.”

The modesty is partly a bid to avoid some of the burdens carried by developed nations, including tough restrictions on carbon emissions, said Damien Ma, an expert on China’s economy and co-author of In Line Behind a Billion People. “China, of course, has been gradually stepping up in the global arena, but still prefers to remain largely passive” on issues that don’t gibe with its interests, Ma told Foreign Policy. Maintaining China’s status as a developing nation can make it easier to resist pressure to curb emissions or reform its currency.

China’s distaste for the No. 1 label also reflects a waning of the “GDP fetish” that held China in thrall for the past few decades, Ma said. “The political mandate is shifting from a singular focus on GDP” to one that puts greater emphasis on quality of life issues such as public health, food safety, and the environment, he added. Though a lesser headline, improvement of those essential services would probably be preferable to most Chinese than any statistical crown. As one Weibo user opined, “it doesn’t matter if we overtake America or not. As long as people feel that life is getting better and better, that is what’s most important.”