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The People’s Republic of China: 70 Years of Economic History

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70 Years of China’s Economic Growth in One Chart

Chart: 70 Years of China’s Economic Growth

View a high-resolution version of this graphic here.

From agrarian economy to global superpower in half a century—China’s transformation has been an economic success story unlike any other.

Today, China is the world’s second largest economy, making up 16% of $86 trillion global GDP in nominal terms. If you adjust numbers for purchasing power parity (PPP), the Chinese economy has already been the world’s largest since 2014.

The upward trajectory over the last 70 years has been filled with watershed moments, strategic directives, and shocking tragedies — and all of this can be traced back to the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1st, 1949.

How the PRC Came to Be

The Chinese Civil War (1927–1949) between the Republic of China (ROC) and the Communist Party of China (CPC) caused a fractal split in the nation’s leadership. The CPC emerged victorious, and mainland China was established as the PRC.

Communist leader Mao Zedong set out a few chief goals for the PRC: to overhaul land ownership, to reduce social inequality, and to restore the economy after decades of war. The first State Planning Commission and China’s first 5-year plan were introduced to achieve these goals.

Today’s timely chart looks back on seven decades of notable events and policies that helped shape the country China has become. The base data draws from a graphic by Bert Hofman, the World Bank’s Country Director for China and other Asia-Pacific regions.

The Mao Era: 1949–1977

Mao Zedong’s tenure as Chairman of the PRC triggered sweeping changes for the country.

1953–1957: First 5-Year Plan
The program’s aim was to boost China’s industrialization. Steel production grew four-fold in four years, from 1.3 million tonnes to 5.2 million tonnes. Agricultural output also rose, but it couldn’t keep pace with industrial production.

1958–1962: Great Leap Forward
The campaign emphasized China’s agrarian-to-industrial transformation, via a communal farming system. However, the plan failed—causing an economic breakdown and the deaths of tens of millions in the Great Chinese Famine.

1959–1962: Lushan Conference and 7,000 Cadres meeting
Top leaders in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) met to create detailed policy frameworks for the PRC’s future.

1966–1976: Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution
Mao Zedong attempted to regain power and support after the failures of the Great Leap Forward. However, this was another plan that backfired, causing millions more deaths by violence and again crippling the Chinese economy.

1971: Joined the United Nations
The PRC replaced the ROC (Taiwan) as a permanent member of the United Nations. This addition also made it one of only five members of the UN Security Council—including the UK, the U.S., France, and Russia.

1972: President Nixon’s visit
After 25 years of radio silence, Richard Nixon was the first sitting U.S. President to step foot into the PRC. This helped re-establish diplomatic relations between the two nations.

1976–1977: Mao Zedong Death, and “Two Whatevers”
After Mao Zedong’s passing, the interim government promised to “resolutely uphold whatever policy decisions Chairman Mao made, and unswervingly follow whatever instructions Chairman Mao gave.”

1979: “One-Child Policy”
The government enacted an aggressive birth-planning program to control the size of the country’s population, which it viewed as growing too fast.

A Wave of Socio-Economic Reforms: 1980-1999

From 1980 onward, China worked on opening up its markets to the outside world, and closing the inequality gap.

1980–1984: Special Economic Zones (SEZs) established
Several cities were designated SEZs, and provided with measures such as tax incentives to attract foreign investment. Today, the economies of cities like Shenzhen have grown to rival the GDPs of entire countries.

1981: National Household Responsibility System implemented
In the Mao era, quotas were set on how many goods farmers could produce, shifting the responsibility of profits to local managers instead. This rapidly increased the standard of living, and the quota system spread from agriculture into other sectors.

1989: Coastal Development Strategy
Post-Mao leadership saw the coastal region as the potential “catalyst” for the entire country’s modernization.

1989–1991: Post-Tiananmen retrenchment
Early 1980s economic reforms had mixed results, and the growing anxiety eventually culminated in a series of protests. After tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in 1989, the government “retrenched” itself by initially attempting to roll back economic reforms and liberalization. The country’s annual growth plunged from 8.6% between 1979-1989 to 6.5% between 1989-1991.

1990–1991: Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges open
Combined, the Shanghai (SSE) and Shenzhen (SZSE) stock exchanges are worth over $8.5 trillion in total market capitalization today.

1994: Shandong Huaneng lists on the NYSE
The power company was the first PRC enterprise to list on the NYSE. This added a new N-shares group to the existing Chinese capital market options of A-shares, B-shares, and H-shares.

1994–1996: National “8-7” Poverty Reduction Plan
China successfully lifted over 400 million poor people out of poverty between 1981 and 2002 through this endeavor.

1996: “Grasp the Large, Let Go of the Small”
Efforts were made to downsize the state sector. Policy makers were urged to maintain control over state-owned enterprises to “grasp the large”. Meanwhile, the central government was encouraged to relinquish control over smaller SOEs, or “let go of the small”.

1997: Urban Dibao (低保)
China’s social safety net went through restructuring from 1993, and became a nationwide program after strong success in Shanghai.

1997-1999: Hong Kong and Macao handover, Asian Financial Crisis
China was largely unscathed by the regional financial crisis, thanks to the RMB (¥) currency’s non-convertibility. Meanwhile, the PRC regained sovereignty of Hong Kong and Macau back from the UK and Portugal, respectively.

1999: Western Development Strategy
The “Open Up the West” program built out 6 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, and 1 municipality—each becoming integral to the Chinese economy.

Turn of the Century: 2000-present

China’s entry to the World Trade Organization, and the Qualified Foreign Institutional Investor (QFII) program – which let foreign investors participate in the PRC’s stock exchanges – contributed to the country’s economic growth.

Source: CNBC

2006: Medium-term Plan for Scientific Development
The PRC State Council’s 15-year plan outlines that 2.5% or more of national GDP should be devoted to research and development by 2020.

2008-2009: Global Financial Crisis
The PRC experienced only a mild economic slowdown during the crisis. The country’s GDP growth in 2007 was a staggering 14.2%, but this dropped to 9.7% and 9.5% respectively in the two years following.

2013: Belt and Road Initiative
China’s ambitious plans to develop road, rail, and sea routes across 152 countries is scheduled for completion by 2049—in time for the PRC’s 100th anniversary. More than $900 billion is budgeted for these infrastructure projects.

2015: Made in China 2025
The PRC refuses to be the world’s “factory” any longer. In response, it will invest nearly $300 billion to boost its manufacturing capabilities in high-tech fields like pharmaceuticals, aerospace, and robotics.

Despite the recent ongoing trade dispute with the U.S. and an increasingly aging population, the Chinese growth story seems destined to continue on.

China Paving the Way?

The 70th anniversary of the PRC offers a moment to reflect on the country’s journey from humble beginnings to a powerhouse on the world stage.

Because of China’s economic success, more and more countries see China as an example to emulate, a model of development that could mean moving from rags to riches within a generation.

Bert Hofman, World Bank

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Misc

Timeline: The World’s Biggest Passenger Ships from 1831-Present

This giant infographic explores the biggest passenger ships on the open seas, over a period of almost 200 years.

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Biggest Passenger Ships Since 1833

Breaking Records: The Biggest Passenger Ships since 1831

The Titanic lives large in our minds, but it’s probably not surprising that the world record for biggest passenger ship has been broken many times since its era. In fact, today’s largest passenger ship can now hold over 6,000 people—more than double the Titanic’s capacity.

This graphic by HMY Yachts looks at which vessels held the title of the world’s largest passenger ship over time, and how these vessels have evolved since the early 19th century.

Different Types of Passenger Ships

Before diving into the ranking, it’s worth explaining what constitutes a passenger ship.

Passenger ships are vessels whose main purpose is to transport people rather than goods. In modern times, there are three types of passenger ships:

  • Cruise ships: Used for vacationing, with a priority on amenities and luxury
  • Ferries: Typically used for shorter day trips, or overnight transport
  • Ocean liners: The traditional mode of maritime transport, with a priority on speed

Traditional ocean liners are becoming obsolete, largely because of advancements in other modes of transportation such as rail, automobile, and air travel. In other words, the main priority for passenger ships has changed over the years, shifting from transportation to recreation.

Now, luxury is the central focus, meaning extravagance is part of the whole cruise ship experience. For example, the Navigator of the Seas (which was the largest passenger ship from 2002-2003) has $8.5 million worth of artwork displayed throughout the ship.

A Full Breakdown: Biggest Passenger Ships By Tonnage

Now that we’ve touched on the definition of a passenger ship and how they’ve evolved over the years, let’s take a look at some of the largest passenger ships in history.

The first vessel on the list is the SS Royal William. Built in Eastern Canada in the early 1800s, this ship was originally built for domestic travel within Canada.

In addition to being the largest passenger ship of its time, it’s often credited as being the first ship to travel across the Atlantic Ocean almost fully by steam engine. However, some sources claim the Dutch-owned vessel Curaçao completed a steam-powered journey in 1827—six years before the SS Royal William.

In 1837, The SS Royal William was dethroned by the SS Great Western, only to change hands dozens of times before 1912, when the Titanic entered the scene.

ShipTitle heldTonnageCapacity
SS Royal William1831 – 18371,370 GRT155 passengers
SS Great Western1837 – 18391,340 GRT128 passengers, 20 servants, 60 crew
SS British Queen1839 – 18401,850 GRT207 passengers
SS President1840 – 18412,366 GRT110 passengers, 44 servants
SS British Queen1841 – 18431,850 GRT207 passengers
SS Great Britain1843 – 18533,270 GRT360 passengers, 120 crew
SS Atrato1853 – 18583,466 GRT762+ passengers
SS Great Eastern1858 – 188818,915 GRT4,000 passengers, 418 crew
SS City of New York1888 – 189310,499 GRT1,740 passengers, 362 crew
RMS Campania and RMS Lucania1893 – 189712,950 GRT2,000 passengers, 424 crew
SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse1897 – 189914,349 GRT1,506 passengers, 488 crew
RMS Oceanic1899 – 190117,272 GRT1,710 passengers, 349 crew
RMS Celtic1901 – 190320,904 GRT2,857 passengers
RMS Cedric1903 – 190421,035 GRT1,223 passengers, 486 crew
RMS Baltic1904 – 190623,876 GRT2,875 passengers
SS Kaiserin Auguste Victoria1906 – 190724,581 GRT2,466 passengers
RMS Lusitania190731,550 GRT2,198 passengers, 850 crew
RMS Mauretania1907 – 191131,938 GRT2,165 passengers, 802 crew
RMS Olympic1911 – 191245,324 GRT2,435 passengers, 950 crew
RMS Titanic191246,328 GRT2,435 passengers, 892 crew
SS Imperator1913 – 191452,117 GRT4,234 passengers, 1,180 crew
SS Vaterland1914 – 192254,282 GRT1,165 passengers
RMS Majestic1922 – 193556,551 GRT2,145 passengers
SS Normandie1935 – 193679,280 GRT1,972 passengers, 1,345 crew
RMS Queen Mary193680,774 GRT2,139 passengers, 1,101 crew
SS Normandie1936 – 194683,404 GRT1,972 passengers, 1,345 crew
RMS Queen Elizabeth1946 – 197283,673 GRT2,283 passengers, 1000+ crew
SS France and SS Norway (1962-1980)1972 – 198766,343 GRT2,044 passengers, 1,253 crew
MS Sovereign of the Seas1987 – 199073,529 GT2,850 passengers
SS Norway1990 – 199576,049 GT2,565 passengers, 875 crew
Sun Princess1995 – 199677,499 GT2,010 passengers, 924 crew
Carnival Destiny1996 – 1998101,353 GT2,642 passengers, 1,150 crew
Grand Princess1998 – 1999109,000 GT2,590 passengers, 1,110 crew
Voyager of the Seas1999 – 2000137,276 GT3,138 passengers, 1,181 crew
Explorer of the Seas2000 – 2002137,308 GT3,114 passengers, 1,180 crew
Navigator of the Seas2002 – 2003139,999 GT4,000 passengers, 1,200 crew
RMS Queen Mary 22003 – 2006148,528 GT2,640 passengers, 1,256 crew
MS Freedom of the Seas2006 – 2007154,407 GT4,515 passengers, 1,300 crew
Liberty of the Seas2007 – 2009155,889 GT4,960 passengers, 1,300 crew
Oasis of the Seas2009 – 2016225,282 GT6,780 passengers, 2,165 crew
Harmony of the Seas2016 – 2018226,963 GT6,780 passengers, 2,300 crew
Symphony of the Seas2018 – present228,081 GT6,680 passengers, 2,200 crew

The Titanic was one of three ships in the Olympic-class line. Of the three, two of them sank—the Titanic in 1912, and the HMHS Britannic in 1916, during World War I. Some historians believe these ships sank as a result of their faulty bulkhead design.

Fast forward to today, and the Symphony of the Seas is now the world’s largest passenger ship. While it boasts 228,081 in gross tonnage, it uses 25% less fuel than its sister ships (which are slightly smaller).

COVID-19’s Impact on Cruise Ships

2020 was a tough year for the cruise ship industry, as travel restrictions and onboard outbreaks halted the $150 billion industry. As a result, some operations were forced to downsize—for instance, the notable cruise operation Carnival removed 13 ships from its fleet in July 2020.

That being said, restrictions are slowly beginning to loosen, and industry experts remain hopeful that things will look different in 2021 as more people begin to come back on board.

“[There] is quite a bit of pent-up demand and we’re already seeing strong interest in 2021 and 2022 across the board, with Europe, the Mediterranean, and Alaska all seeing significant interest next year.”
-Josh Leibowitz, president of luxury cruise line Seabourn

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Misc

Visualized: Comparing the Titanic to a Modern Cruise Ship

The sheer size of the Titanic was a sight to behold in 1912, but over 100 years later, how does this vessel compare to a modern cruise ship?

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Remembering the Tragedy of the Titanic

When the Titanic was completed on April 2, 1912, it was the largest and perhaps most luxurious ship in the world. The vessel could hold over 3,300 people including crew members, and boasted various amenities including a swimming pool and squash court.

The Titanic’s impressive size attracted many of the world’s wealthiest individuals, and on April 10, 1912, it set out on its maiden voyage. Just five days later, the ship sank after hitting an iceberg, resulting in more than 1,500 deaths.

It’s been over 100 years since the Titanic’s demise, so how have passenger ships evolved?

To find out, we’ve visualized it beside Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas, currently the world’s largest cruise ship.

The Size of the Titanic, in Perspective

The following table lists the dimensions of both ships to provide a better understanding of the Titanic’s relative size.

 RMS TitanicSymphony of the Seas
Year Built19122018
Length882ft (269m) 1,184ft (361m)
Width92ft (28m)215ft (66m)
Height175ft (53m)238ft (73m)
Internal volume46,328 gross register tonnage (grt)228,081 gross tonnage (gt)
Passengers2,4356,680
Crew8922,200

Source: Owlcation, Insider
Note: Gross register tonnage (grt) is a historic measure of a ship’s internal volume. This metric was replaced by gross tonnage (gt) on July 18, 1982.

One of the biggest differences between these two ships is width, with the latter being more than twice as wide. This is likely due to the vast amenities housed within the Symphony of the Seas, which includes 24 pools, 22 restaurants, 2 rock climbing walls, an ice-skating rink, and more. With accommodations for 6,680 passengers, the Symphony of the Seas also supports a crew that is 147% larger.

The Symphony of the Seas clearly surpasses the Titanic in terms of size, but there’s also a substantial difference in cost. When converted to today’s dollars, the bill for the Titanic equates to roughly $400 million, less than half of the Symphony of the Seas’ cost of $1.35 billion.

Lessons Learned from the Disaster

Inadequate safety preparations were a contributor to the Titanic’s high death toll. During its journey, the vessel carried enough lifeboats to accommodate just 33% of its total passengers and crew. This was legal at the time, as regulations based a ship’s number of required lifeboats on its weight, rather than its passenger capacity.

To make matters worse, investigations determined that the Titanic’s lifeboats had not been used to their full capacity, and that a scheduled lifeboat drill had been cancelled by the ship’s captain. These shortfalls, among others, paved the way for numerous improvements in maritime safety regulation.

These include the creation of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea Treaty (SOLAS) in 1914, which is still in force today. Regarded as the most important international treaty on ship safety, SOLAS has been updated numerous times and is followed by 164 states, which together flag 99% of merchant ships (by gross tonnage) on the high seas today.

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