Chart: 70 Years of China’s Economic Growth
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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.
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.
The Game of Life: Visualizing China’s Social Credit System
This infographic explores how China’s proposed social credit system will monitor and surveil citizens, and how it’ll be used to reward or punish them.
The Game of Life: Visualizing China’s Social Credit System
In an attempt to imbue trust, China has announced a plan to implement a national ranking system for its citizens and companies. Currently in pilot mode, the new system will be rolled out in 2020, and go through numerous iterations before becoming official.
While the system may be a useful tool for China to manage its growing 1.4 billion population, it has triggered global concerns around the ethics of big data, and whether the system is a breach of fundamental human rights.
Today’s infographic looks at how China’s proposed social credit system could work, and what the implications might be.
The Government is Always Watching
Currently, the pilot system varies from place to place, whereas the new system is envisioned as a unified system. Although the pilot program may be more of an experiment than a precursor, it gives a good indication of what to expect.
In the pilot system, each citizen is assigned 1,000 points and is consistently monitored and rated on how they behave. Points are earned through good deeds, and lost for bad behavior. Users increase points by donating blood or money, praising the government on social media, and helping the poor. Rewards for such behavior can range from getting a promotion at work fast-tracked, to receiving priority status for children’s school admissions.
In contrast, not visiting one’s aging parents regularly, spreading rumors on the internet, and cheating in online games are considered antisocial behaviors. Punishments include public shaming, exclusion from booking flights or train tickets, and restricted access to public services.
Big Data Goes Right to the Source
The perpetual surveillance that comes with the new system is expected to draw on huge amounts of data from a variety of traditional and digital sources.
Police officers have used AI-powered smart glasses and drones to effectively monitor citizens. Footage from these devices showing antisocial behavior can be broadcast to the public to shame the offenders, and deter others from behaving similarly.
For more serious offenders, some cities in China force people to repay debts by switching the person’s ringtone without their permission. The ringtone begins with the sound of a police siren, followed by a message such as:
“The person you are calling has been listed as a discredited person by the local court. Please urge this person to fulfill his or her legal obligations.”
Two of the largest companies in China, Tencent and Alibaba, were enlisted by the People’s Bank of China to play an important role in the credit system, raising the issue of third-party data security. WeChat—China’s largest social media platform, owned by Tencent—tracked behavior and ranked users accordingly, while displaying their location in real-time.
Following data concerns, these tech companies—and six others—were not awarded any licenses by the government. However, social media giants are still involved in orchestrating the public shaming of citizens who misbehave.
The Digital Dang’an
The social credit system may not be an entirely new initiative in China. The dang’an (English: record) is a paper file containing an individual’s school reports, information on physical characteristics, employment records, and photographs.
These dossiers, which were first used in the Maoist years, helped the government in maintaining control of its citizens. This gathering of citizen’s data for China’s social credit system may in fact be seen as a revival of the principle of dang’an in the digital era, with the system providing a powerful tool to monitor citizens whose data is more difficult to capture.
Is the System Working?
In 2018, people with a low score were prohibited from buying plane tickets almost 18 million times, while high-speed train ticket transactions were blocked 5.5 million times. A further 128 people were prohibited from leaving China, due to unpaid taxes.
The system could have major implications for foreign business practices—as preference could be given to companies already ranked in the system. Companies with higher scores will be rewarded with incentives which include lower tax rates and better credit conditions, with their behavior being judged in areas such as:
- Paid taxes
- Customs regulation
- Environmental protection
Despite the complexities of gathering vast amounts of data, the system is certainly making an impact. While there are benefits to having a standardized scoring system, and encouraging positive behavior—will it be worth the social cost of gamifying human life?
A Timeline of U-Turns from the Chinese Market
It’s hard to ignore the massive economic opportunities available in the Chinese market, but it’s also notoriously difficult to succeed in.
China’s economic surge is one of the biggest stories of the 21st century.
Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, and China’s swelling middle class has attracted the interest of Western companies.
As many American companies have discovered, doing business in China is far from straightforward. Recent history is littered with examples of companies that entered the Chinese market to great fanfare, only to retreat a few years later.
Calling Off The Offensive
Today’s infographic highlights 11 companies that ended up tapping the brakes on their ambitious forays on the other side of the Pacific.
Then, we take a look at the factors that influenced these strategic withdrawals.
Here are some high profile examples of corporate u-turns by American companies operating in the Chinese market:
When Google China’s search engine was launched in 2006, the company had made the controversial decision to censor search results within the country. Google publicly displayed a disclaimer indicating that some results were removed, which created tensions with the Chinese government.
For a while, things seemed to be going well. Even though a domestic company, Baidu, had captured the majority of the Chinese search market, Google did have a respectable market share of about 30%.
Google China’s fortune took a turn for the worse in 2010 after a major hack – Operation Aurora – exposed user data as well as intellectual property. The hack, which originated from within China, was the last straw for Google’s executive team. After one last ditch effort to provide unfiltered search results within China, the company retreated beyond the firewall.
Amazon was an early entrant into the Chinese market. In 2004, the company acquired Joyo – an online shopping site – which was eventually rebranded to Amazon China in 2011.
Amazon China achieved some early success hitting a market share of around 15%, but today, that market share has eroded to less than 1%. Facing nearly insurmountable competition from domestic e-commerce platforms like JD and Taobao, the company recently announced it would be exiting the Chinese market.
After arriving fashionably late for the ride-hailing party in 2014, it quickly became clear that Uber was facing an uphill battle against well-funded domestic rivals. After only two years, Uber elected to u-turn out of the Chinese market.
Though Uber’s tactical exit from China is often viewed as a failure, the company has earned upwards of $8B through its sale to competitor Didi Chuxing.
A Two-Way Street
Now that red-hot growth at home is beginning to taper off, a number of Chinese companies have begun their push into other markets around the world. Much like their American counterparts, brands pushing beyond China’s borders are seeing varied success in their expansion efforts.
One high-profile example is Huawei. The telecommunications giant has been making inroads in countries around the world – particularly in emerging markets – but has seen pushback and scrutiny in a number of developed economies. Huawei has become a lightning rod for growing concerns over government surveillance and China’s growing influence over the global communications network.
Already, Australia has blocked the company from participating in its 5G network, and in the United States, government agencies are banned from buying Huawei gear.
If negative sentiment continues to build, it remains to be seen whether Huawei and other Chinese companies will follow the playbook of American brands in China, and turn the car around.
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