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Chinese Economy Climbs, but Struggles to Spread Wealth

Chinese Economy Climbs, but Struggles to Spread Wealth

by Ian T. Brown and Tao Wu

This is the first in a two-part series on the race for global influence between China and the U.S. The first part assesses perceptions of Chinese economic strength and explores the growing gap between Chinese income in urban and rural areas. The second part presents approval ratings of Chinese and American leadership in more than 145 countries.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans once expected Japan would overtake the U.S. as the richest, most advanced nation in the world. Now it is China. Gallup finds that the proportion of Americans who think China is the world's leading economic power has quadrupled between 2000 and 2009. Amid the global economic slowdown, the Chinese economy has continued to grow, while the U.S. economy struggles to recover. However, in China, this relative economic prosperity is offset by a widening wealth gap between its urban residents and its rural majority.

Americans Eye China

China's GDP growth has been staggering in recent years. In absolute terms, the U.S. economy is still nearly four times the size of China's, but the balance is shifting. With consistently high levels of growth, China's GDP is projected to surpass that of the U.S. in the next 20 to 30 years (though it is unclear how the global economic slowdown will affect projections).

Overshadowed by China's boom, perceptions of America's economic supremacy fell among Americans between 2000 and 2009. In May 2000, when the U.S. economy itself was booming, Gallup asked Americans who they thought the world's leading economic power is, and 65% of Americans said the United States. That number fell to 33% in February 2008, and rose only slightly to 37% in February 2009. Forty percent of American respondents in 2008 and 39% in 2009 said China is the world's leading economic power (China and the United States were statistically tied in 2009).


In 2009, while Americans were more likely to say the United States will be the leading economic power in 20 years, 34% of Americans still said China would be. This figure is down from 44% in 2008, but still more than double the 15% in 2000.

Urban vs. Rural China: Widening Economic Inequality

China's economy is not invincible or without its problems. GDP growth is projected to slow for 2009, and recover only some in 2010. Further, China's rapid growth has generated a widening wealth gap between the country's urban and rural residents. Between 1997 and 2008, Gallup data show that reported annual rural household incomes grew by roughly 7,100 RMB. Reported annual urban household incomes grew by roughly 20,800 RMB during the same period.


In addition to the slower income growth, rural Chinese face less developed public infrastructure than their urban counterparts. Also, education and healthcare systems are less available and of poorer quality, leading millions of rural Chinese to relocate to the city in search of better public services and economic opportunity. Last December, a China Daily contributor argued that investment in public infrastructure was a key to overcoming economic recession in China.

China Aspires to Global Prominence

During April's G20 meeting in London, China tacitly made it known to the world that they consider the G2 -- China and the United States -- the world's true decision-making duo. Long a passive participant in global summits, China is now positioning itself to be an economic giant, and as such, enhancing its reputation as a major international player.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,022 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 9-12, 2009, in the United States. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone only).

Results are based on face-to-face and telephone interviews with approximately 4,383 adults, aged 15 and older, conducted in November 2008 in China. For results based on the total sample of Chinese adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±2.2 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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