Is China's Economic Power a Paper Tiger?

A painter contrasts the reddish-pink hue on a painting knife with China's 100 yuan banknote before he works on portraits for Chinese artist and film-maker Zhang Bingjian's "Hall of Fame" project in a studio in Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong province

The People’s Republic of China has surely seen faster GDP growth than the United States for most of the past forty years. It's the value of that growth that's questionable.

The people complaining about U.S. decline in the face of China’s rise under President Obama have been replaced by new people complaining about the same thing under President Trump. The debate over policy in the two administrations plainly matters, but it should not obscure basic facts. The most important of these facts is that, in terms of total economic resources, China is not in America’s league and may not even be catching up.

GDP Is Overrated, or Worse

It seems strange to say this with China having reported faster growth in gross domestic product (GDP) for decades. First, it’s worth asking if and when Beijing will admit that its economy struggled. For instance, China reported 7.9 percent GDP growth for the second quarter of 2009 yet continued the world’s largest loan program, and saw much of it turn to debt despite the supposedly fast growth. It’s almost as if the economy did not do nearly as well as the Communist Party claimed.

Still, the People’s Republic has almost surely seen faster GDP growth than the United States for most of the past forty years. The question is its value. For ordinary Chinese, disposable income (as reported by Beijing) is less than half of GDP per capita. Disposable income is money that can actually be spent while GDP per capita is an accounting device, with little relevance in the real world.

Even less relevant is GDP adjusted by purchasing power parity (PPP). PPP requires computing a price level for all of China and comparing it to all of America, itself slightly absurd. It relies on “the law of one price”—arbitrage across open markets causing prices for the same product to equalize. Chinese market barriers mean arbitrage often fails. Related, PPP is meant to apply to consumer buying power, while consumption is less than 50 percent of Chinese GDP. GDP adjusted by purchasing power is a poor measurement for many countries, including China.

Net Private Wealth

Simple GDP is better than that, but it’s far from the only measurement and may not be the most important. The resources available to countries to pursue national interests are captured in net national wealth, which again takes the form of money that can be spent rather than an accounting result. If conceptualized and measured accurately, annual GDP should capture contributions over time to the stock of wealth. It should be not be surprising that Chinese GDP turns out not to be tightly associated with wealth.

Credit Suisse compiles net private wealth in most national economies going back to 2000. The data are unstable in that there can be later revision, so the most recent results should be considered tentative. Against that, there are two reassuring features: (i) any bias should be considerably smaller than the bias of the Chinese government and (ii) the results do reflect China’s rise through 2012.

From 2000–2012, net private Chinese wealth jumped from $4.66 trillion (less than India’s today) to $21.7 trillion, close to a 14 percent annual growth rate. American net private wealth over the same period rose from $42.3 trillion to $67.5 trillion. While the absolute advantage for the United States expanded, it did so by only $8 trillion because U.S. annual growth was only four percent. China was easily outperforming.

The situation has changed sharply since then. From the end of 2012 to the middle of 2017, Chinese net private wealth has climbed $7.3 trillion, annual growth never touching 9 percent. American net private wealth jumped $26 trillion. The American base was much bigger and American growth also became a bit faster. The result: mid-2017 Chinese net private wealth was $29 trillion and American net private wealth was over $93 trillion. The Federal Reserve supports the Credit Suisse number, putting American household net worth at $96 trillion.

Just as GDP is not the perfect measurement of economic performance, nor is private wealth. Neither provide information about growing global concerns about inequality. But wealth does reframe the U.S.-China discussion. Claims that China is about to eclipse the United States are untenable in the face of $64 trillion less in net private wealth. Claims that China is outpacing the United States are challenged by the private wealth gap widening by $18 trillion in the past four and a half years after widening by less than half that the previous twelve years. In terms of private wealth, China is barely visible in America’s rear mirror.

The Public Sector