70 Years of China’s Economic Growth In One Chart
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The People’s Republic of China: 70 Years of Economic History

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View a high-resolution version of this graphic here.

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

From Greek to Latin: Visualizing the Evolution of the Alphabet

The Greek alphabet is just one part of the modern alphabet’s long evolution.

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Visualizing the Evolution of the Alphabet Share

From Greek to Latin: Visualizing the Evolution of the Alphabet

Over the course of 2021, the Greek alphabet was a major part of the news cycle.

COVID-19 variants, which are labeled with Greek letters when becoming a variant of concern, normalized their usage. From the Alpha variant in the UK, to the Delta variant that spread from India to become the dominant global strain, the Greek alphabet was everywhere. Seemingly overnight, the Omicron variant discovered in South Africa has now taken the mantle as the most discussed variant.

But the Greek alphabet is used in other parts of our lives as well. For example, Greek letters are commonly used in mathematics and science, like Sigma (Σ) denoting a sum or Lambda (λ) used to represent the half-life of radioactive material.

And the study of linguistics shows us why using Greek letters in English isn’t completely farfetched. This visualization from Matt Baker at UsefulCharts.com demonstrates how the modern Latin script used in English evolved from Greek, and other, alphabets.

It’s All Proto-Sinaitic to Me

Before there was English, or Latin, or even Greek, there was Proto-Sinaitic.

Considered the first alphabet ever used, the Proto-Sinaitic script was derived in Canaan, around the biblical Land of Israel. It was repurposed from Egyptian hieroglyphs that were commonly seen in the area (its name comes from Mount Sinai), and used to describe sounds instead of meanings.

Proto-Sinaitic Letter (Reconstructed Name)Original Meaning
ʾalpox
baythouse
gaml throwstick
dagfish
haw/hillulpraise
waw/uphfowl
zayn/zaytoxhide ingot/sword
ḏiqqmanacle
ḥaṣr courtyard
ḫaytthread
ṭab good
yadhand
kappalm
lamdgoad
maymwater
naḥašsnake
ṡamkpeg
ʿayneye
ġabicalyx
pʿitcorner
ṣadayplant
qobaneedle/nape/monkey
raʾšhead
šimšsun
śadehfield
ṯannbow
tāwmark

As the first Semitic script, Proto-Sinaitic soon influenced other Semitic languages. It was the precursor to the Phoenician alphabet, which was used in the area of modern-day Lebanon and spread across the Mediterranean and became the basis for Arabic, Cyrillic, Hebrew, and of course, Greek.

Evolving into the Greek, Roman, and Latin Alphabets

Over time, the alphabet continued to become adopted and evolve across different languages.

The first forms of the Archaic Greek script are dated circa 750 BCE. Many of the letters remained in Modern Greek, including Alpha, Beta, Delta, and even Omicron, despite first appearing more than 2,500 years ago.

Soon the Greek alphabet (and much of its culture) was borrowed into Latin, with Archaic Latin script appearing circa 500 BCE. The evolution into Roman script, with the same recognizable letters used in modern English, occurred 500 years later in 1 CE.

AlphabetUsage (Year)
Proto-Sinaitic~ 1,750 BCE
Phoenician~ 1,000 BCE
Archaic Greek~ 750 BCE
Archaic Latin~ 500 BCE
Roman~ 1 CE
Modern LatinToday

Many of the letters which first came from Egyptian hieroglyphs made their way into modern English, but they took a long and convoluted journey. As the graphic above highlights, some letters evolved into multiple forms, while others fell out of use entirely.

And this is just a snapshot of the many scripts and languages that the modern English alphabet evolved from. Lowercase letters came from Roman cursive, which evolved into the Insular and Carolingian scripts before becoming modern lowercase English.

Like many things in the long arc of human culture, alphabets are not as far removed from each other as you might think.

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Misc

Visualizing Human Evolution with a New Ancient Human Species

We visualize changes to our understanding of human evolution with the introduction of a new ancient human species, Homo bodoensis.

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A New Species in Human Evolution

A New Member of Human Evolution

The next step in understanding human evolution has brought forth the reclassification of some old names.

Mirjana Roksandic, Predrag Radovic, and their team of researchers propose a new human species called Homo bodoensis.

H. bodoensis isn’t a discovery of new fossils but a re-examination of old ones. This reclassification is an attempt to clean up long-standing confusion about our ancestors and how humans evolved.

The Muddle in the Middle

The Middle Pleistocene was a period spanning 780,000 to 126,000 years ago and had a lot of different human species existing at the time. These species included:

  • European Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis)
  • Asian Denisovans
  • African Homo heidelbergensis
  • African Homo rhodesiensis
  • African Homo erectus

The Middle Pleistocene was a lively time for human evolution, as it eventually spawned our species, Homo sapiens. Despite this bountiful presence of activity, our knowledge of human evolution during this age is lacking. This problem is known as “the Muddle in the Middle.”

Age-Old Thinking about Human Evolution

Human fossils from the Middle Pleistocene in Africa and Eurasia are usually classified as either Homo heidelbergensis or Homo rhodesiensis.

Homo heidelbergensis

H. heidelbergensis is an extinct species of human whose first fossil was found in a gravel pit in Germany in 1907. Since then, new-found fossils that did not fit the classification criteria of Neanderthals, H. sapiens, or the older H. erectus have been classified as H. heidelbergensis.

Roksandic and her team argue that this ‘lumping’ is a misattribution that muddles our understanding of which species H. sapiens originated from.

In addition, newer DNA evidence suggests that some H. heidelbergensis fossils from Europe originated from early Neanderthals. The name is, thus, redundant.

Homo rhodesiensis

Some believe that H. rhodesiensis is an extinct species of humans and the most recent ancestor of H. sapiens and Neanderthals.

Despite its importance, it never gained popularity in the paleoanthropology communities. This is because of its poor definition, but Roksandic supports its removal because it is also an alleged namesake to Rhodesia’s violent and aggressive colonizer, Cecil Rhodes.

It was high time for both H. heidelbergensis and H. rhodesiensis to go.

Homo bodoensis and What Changes in Human Evolution

Roksandic and her team suggest dissolving the two species to introduce a new merged species, H. bodoensis. The name derives from a 600,000-year-old skull discovered in 1976 in Bodo D’ar, Ethiopia.

All fossils previously classified as H. heidelbergensis and H. rhodesiensis originating in Africa are reclassified as H. bodoensis. As such, this now makes H. bodoensis our direct ancestor.

Fossils from Western Europe are reclassified as H. neanderthalensis to reflect the early appearance of Neanderthal-like traits. Asian fossils, like those from China, may belong to a different lineage.

A Doubted Legacy?

Despite its merits, not everyone agrees with this new proposal.

Renowned anthropologist Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum of London says that the reshuffling of species is unnecessary.

While he agrees that the name H. heidelbergensis is used too loosely and should be confined to a few select fossils, he is happy to continue using H. rhodesiensis. He argues its namesake comes from the country, not from Cecil Rhodes himself.

In addition, Stinger says there are a variety of other species names to choose from before creating a new one. If H. rhodesiensis must be renamed, species like Homo saldanensis, named by Matthew Drennan in the 1950s from a fossilized skull, should take precedence.

Roksandic and her team reclassified H. saldanensis into H. bodoensis.

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