China's Economy: Visualizing 40 Years of Soaring Exports
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China’s Economy: 40 Years of Soaring Exports

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Animated Chart: 40 Years of Soaring Exports in China

China has the second highest GDP in the world, and it exports 15% of all the world’s goods. But how did this come to be?

A mere 40 years ago, China’s economy was in an entirely different situation, making up less than 1% of global exports and still in the infancy stages of building its economy. The above animated chart from the UNCTAD showcases China’s rise to global trade dominance over time.

Timeline: The Rise to Power

The China of the mid-20th century looks remarkably different when compared to the modern-day nation. Prior to the 1980s, China was going through a period of social upheaval, poverty, and dictatorship under Mao Zedong.

The 1970s

Beginning in the late 1970s, China’s share of global exports stood at less than 1%. The country had few trade hubs and little industry. In 1979, for example, Shenzhen was a city of just around 30,000 inhabitants.

In fact, China (excluding Taiwan* and Hong Kong) did not even show up in the top 10 global exporters until 1997 when it hit a 3.3% share of global exports.

YearShare of Global ExportsRank
20004.0%#7
20057.3%#3
201010.3%#1
201513.7%#1
202014.7%#1

*Editor’s note: The above data comes from the UN, which lists Taiwan as a separate region of China for political reasons.

The 1980s

In the 1980s, several cities and regions, like the Pearl River Delta, were designated as Special Economic Zones. These SEZs had tax incentives that worked to attract foreign investment.

Additionally, in 1989, the Coastal Development Strategy was implemented to use strategic regions along the country’s coast as catalysts for economic development.

The 1990s and Onwards

By the 1990s, the world saw the rise of global value chains and transnational production lines, with China offering a cheap manufacturing hub due to low labor costs.

Rounding out the ‘90s, the Western Development Strategy was implemented in 1999, dubbed the “Open Up the West” program. This program worked to build up infrastructure and education to retain talent in China’s economy, with the goal of attracting further foreign investment.

Finally, China officially joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 which allowed the country to progress full steam ahead.

Made in China

Today China is a trade giant and manufacturing behemoth. Only the U.S. and Germany come close to its share of global exports, sitting at 8.1% and 7.8% respectively.

RankCountryShare of Global Exports (2020)
#1🇨🇳 China14.7%
#2🇺🇸 U.S. 8.1%
#3🇩🇪 Germany7.8%
#4🇳🇱 Netherlands3.8%
#5🇯🇵 Japan3.6%
#6🇭🇰 Hong Kong SAR3.1%
#7🇰🇷 South Korea2.9%
#8🇮🇹 Italy2.8%
#9🇫🇷 France2.8%
#10🇧🇪 Belgium2.4%

China’s manufacturing industry has become dominant in producing just about anything from commonplace household items to integral pieces in automotive manufacturing. Some staples of Chinese manufacturing are:

  • Precision instruments
  • Semiconductors
  • Industrial machinery for computers and smartphones

COVID-19 made China’s integral role in the global economy even more visceral, as major delays in the supply chain occurred when the virus hit the country.

An Economic Superpower

In 2021, China’s trade recovery from the crisis has bested most other countries—in Q1 2021, its exports grew by almost 50% compared to the previous year’s quarter, to around $710 billion.

And the country is not slowing down any time soon. Further plans for economic development are well under way, like Made in China 2025, with the goal of becoming a dominant player in global high-tech manufacturing. Additionally, the famous One Belt, One Road initiative has been funding infrastructure projects globally over the past decade, and the country is also a founding member of the RCEP—which is soon to be the world’s biggest trading bloc.

However, China still faces a series of challenges, such as:

  • Population decline
  • The onset of labor saving technology
  • Trade wars with U.S. and sanctions from other trade partners, like Europe
  • The emergence of ASEAN trade powers, like Vietnam

A declining population has many implications like a shrinking workforce and domestic market. Additionally, many companies are setting up shop in less costly manufacturing hubs like Vietnam.

Furthermore, inexpensive innovations in labor-saving technologies, such as robotics and automation, have already begun to undermine the cheap manual labor that has made China the world’s manufacturer.

All of these elements and more could potentially spell a slowing of growth in China’s export dominance. However, while the future for China may not be certain, currently, global trade and production could not function without it.

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Made in America: Goods Exports by State

The U.S. exported $1.8 trillion worth of goods in 2021. This infographic looks at where that trade activity took place across the nation.

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Made in America: Goods Exports by State

After China, the U.S. is the next largest exporter of goods in the world, shipping out $1.8 trillion worth of goods in 2021—an increase of 23% over the previous year.

Of course, that massive number doesn’t tell the whole story. The U.S. economy is multifaceted, with varying levels of trade activity taking place all across the nation.

Using the latest data on international trade from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, we’ve visualized the value of America’s goods exports by state.

Top 10 Exporter States

Here are the top 10 American states that exported the highest dollar value worth of goods during 2021. Combined, these export-leading states represent 59.4% of the nation’s total exports.

RankStateTotal Exports Value% share
#1Texas$375.3 billion21.4%
#2California$175.1 billion10.0%
#3New York$84.9 billion 4.8%
#4Louisiana $76.8 billion4.4%
#5Illinois$65.9 billion3.8%
#6Michigan$55.5 billion3.2%
#7Florida$55.5 billion3.2%
#8Washington$53.6 billion3.1%
#9Ohio$50.4 billion2.9%
#10New Jersey$49.5 billion2.8%
Top 10 States$1.04 trillion59.4%

Texas has been the top exporting state in the U.S. for an incredible 20 years in a row.

Last year, Texas exported $375 billion worth of goods, which is more than California ($175 billion), New York ($85 billion), and Louisiana ($77 billion) combined. The state’s largest manufacturing export category is petroleum and coal products, but it’s also important to mention that Texas led the nation in tech exports for the ninth straight year.

California was the second highest exporter of goods in 2021 with a total value of $175 billion, an increase of 12% from the previous year. The state’s main export by value was computer and electronic product manufacturing, representing 17.8% of the total U.S. exports of that industry. California was also second among all states in exports of machinery manufacturing, accounting for 13.9% of the U.S. total.

What Type of Goods are Exported?

Here is a breakdown of the biggest U.S. export categories by value in 2021.

RankProduct GroupAnnual Export Value (2021)Share of Total Exports
1Mineral fuels including oil$239.8 billion13.7%
2Machinery including computers$209.3 billion11.9%
3Electrical machinery, equipment$185.4 billion10.6%
4Vehicles$122.2 billion7.0%
5Optical, technical, medical apparatus$91.7 billion5.2%
6Aircraft, spacecraft$89.1 billion5.1%
7Gems, precious metals $82.3 billion4.7%
8Pharmaceuticals$78 billion4.4%
9Plastics, plastic articles$74.3 billion4.2%
10Organic chemicals$42.9 billion2.4%

These top 10 export categories alone represent almost 70% of America’s total exports.

The biggest grower among this list is mineral fuels, up by 59% from last year. Pharmaceuticals saw the second biggest one-year increase (45%).

Top 10 U.S. Exports by Country of Destination

So who is buying “Made in America” products?

Unsurprisingly, neighboring countries Canada (17.5%) and Mexico (15.8%) are the two biggest buyers of American goods. Together, they purchase one-third of American exports.

RankDestination CountryShare of U.S. Goods Exports
1🇨🇦 Canada17.5%
2🇲🇽 Mexico15.8%
3🇨🇳 China8.6%
4🇯🇵 Japan4.3%
5🇰🇷 South Korea3.7%
6🇩🇪 Germany3.7%
7🇬🇧 United Kingdom3.5%
8 🇳🇱 Netherlands3.1%
9🇧🇷 Brazil2.7%
10🇮🇳 India2.3%

Three Asian countries round out the top five list: China (8.6%), Japan (4.3%), and South Korea (3.7%). Together, the top five countries account for around half of all goods exports.

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Visualizing Global Income Distribution Over 200 Years

How has global income distribution changed over history? Below, we show three distinct periods since the Industrial Revolution.

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Global Income Distribution

Visualizing Global Income Distribution Over 200 Years

Has the world become more unequal?

With COVID-19 disrupting societies and lower-income countries in particular, social and economic progress made over the last decade is in danger of being reversed. And with rising living costs and inflation across much of the world, experts warn that global income inequality has been exacerbated.

But the good news is that absolute incomes across many poorer countries have significantly risen over the last century of time. And though work remains, poverty levels have fallen dramatically in spite of stark inequality.

To analyze historical trends in global income distribution, this infographic from Our World in Data looks at three periods over the last two centuries. It uses economic data from 1800, 1975, and 2015 compiled by Hans and Ola Rosling.

Methodology

For global income estimates, data was gathered by country across three key variables:

  • Population
  • GDP per capita
  • Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality by statistical distribution

Daily incomes were measured in a hypothetical “international-$” currency, equal to what a U.S. dollar would buy in America in 2011, to allow for comparable incomes across time periods and countries.

Historical Patterns in Global Income Distribution

In 1800, over 80% of the world lived in what we consider extreme poverty today.

At the time, only a small number of countries—predominantly Western European countries, Australia, Canada and the U.S.—saw meaningful economic growth. In fact, research suggests that between 1 CE and 1800 CE the majority of places around the world saw miniscule economic growth (only 0.04% annually).

By 1975, global income distribution became bimodal. Most citizens in developing countries lived below the poverty line, while most in developed countries lived above it, with incomes nearly 10 times higher on average. Post-WWII growth was unusually rapid across developed countries.

Fast forward just 40 years to 2015 and world income distribution changed again. As incomes rose faster in poorer countries than developed ones, many people were lifted out of poverty. Between 1975 and 2015, poverty declined faster than at any other time. Still, steep inequality persisted.

A Tale of Different Economic Outputs

Even as global income distribution has started to even out, economic output has trended in the opposite direction.

As the above interactive chart shows, GDP per capita was much more equal across regions in the 19th century, when it sat around $1,100 per capita on a global basis. Despite many people living below the poverty line during these times, the world also had less wealth to go around.

Today, the global average GDP per capita sits at close to $15,212 or about 14 times higher, but it is not as equally distributed.

At the highest end of the spectrum are Western and European countries. Strong economic growth, greater industrial output, and sufficient legal institutions have helped underpin higher GDP per capita numbers. Meanwhile, countries with the lowest average incomes have not seen the same levels of growth.

This highlights that poverty, and economic prosperity, is heavily influenced by where one lives.

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