WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When U.S. President Barack Obama meets with newly installed Chinese President Xi Jinping Friday and Saturday in California, Obama will find himself interacting with an increasingly confident China that seeks a "new type of great power relationship," as Xi recently remarked. As these leaders work to forge a new relationship, Gallup data collected in the United States and China since 2006 offer key insights into the two countries' strengths and weaknesses, as reflected in the economic perceptions of their people.
Quick Summary: China's economic rise over the past three decades has been one of the major geopolitical events in recent history; the nation is now the second-largest economy in terms of nominal -- i.e., not adjusted for inflation -- gross domestic product and is the world's largest exporter. Already the world's most populous nation, China's expanding influence has the potential to make the Middle Kingdom the world's next great economic power; indeed, some analysts forecast that China's economy will be bigger than the United States' by the end of 2016.
Still, China has a long way to go before average living standards catch up with those in the U.S. Americans are much more likely than the Chinese to feel they are living comfortably and to rate their lives highly.
When President Obama and President Xi spend more than six hours together over the next two days, both will need to carefully consider how the trajectories of their nations play into this crucial bilateral relationship moving forward.
China Holds Advantage on Economic Optimism: In China, economic optimism is pervasive. In 2012, 82% of Chinese adults believed their standard of living was getting better, implying that the vast majority of China's citizens are now feeling the country's robust economic growth. By contrast, 50% of adults in the United States said their living standards were getting better.
In 2012, China's GDP grew by 7.8% -- though this figure was the lowest growth rate since the turn of the century -- while the United States saw anemic growth of 2.2%. Part of the reason for this of course is that developed nations such as the U.S. generally have slower growth. Still, while China was not immune to the deleterious effects of the recent recession, its economy was able to maintain a strong economic growth rate even as the downturn brought financial hardship to millions of Americans.
Moreover, Gallup data indicate that economic optimism is now just as widespread in rural areas as in the country's burgeoning cities, despite longstanding concerns that China's rural population was not feeling the benefit of economic growth. In 2012, 82% of rural residents said their standard of living was getting better -- exactly equal to the share of urban residents who said the same.
Further evidence of China's economic optimism abounds: In 2012, a majority of Chinese (65%) rated their country's economy as "excellent" or "good," while 14% of Americans said the same about their own economy. Nearly one in four Americans (38%) said economic conditions are "poor," compared with 3% of Chinese who saw their economic conditions in the same light.
Chinese Still Less Likely Than Americans to Say They Live Comfortably: Seemingly at odds with the country's growth and sense of economic optimism, the Chinese have not grown more likely to feel they can live comfortably on their current income over the past six years. In 2012, 58% said they were able to get by on their present income, a figure that has remained relatively static. About a third (32%) are finding it difficult or very difficult to make ends meet, and this rate has likewise remained essentially constant. This would seem to suggest that economic progress has not yet directly translated into a more financially secure population, or, alternatively, that as the Chinese feel richer, they find themselves acquiring new desires.
And, one in 10 Chinese say they are living comfortably on their present income, a proportion that has shown no growth over time.
Americans continue to feel much better on average than the Chinese about their own incomes. A plurality (38%) in 2012 said they were living comfortably on their present income; another 34% said they were getting by. A quarter of Americans found it difficult or very difficult to live on their present income.
Although they best the Chinese on this metric, Americans' views of their ability to live a comfortable life have been affected by the recession. They are less likely now than in 2007 to feel they can live comfortably on their present income and more likely to feel it is difficult to live on it.
Chinese Less Likely Than Americans to Rate Lives Highly: China's economic growth has also had a relatively modest effect on how its residents rate their lives over the last six years. In 2012, just over one in five (21%) rated their lives highly enough to be classified as "thriving," whereas 58% of Americans did so.
Of course, many factors may influence life evaluations, but economic and financial opportunities are critical components. This stubbornly low figure may be further evidence that many residents are not feeling China's new fortunes -- or it may point to other sources of dissatisfaction within the country.
President Xi of China reportedly seeks to establish a "new type of great power relationship" vis-à-vis the United States after a long stretch during which the United States was the sole global leader. This is in large part due to China's rapidly expanding economy -- it is now the world's second largest, and the nation is the top exporter to the world. By contrast, the United States is a nation some speculate is facing "relative decline," due to its lethargic economy and gridlocked government.
On the face of it, China does have clear strengths with which the U.S. will have to contend -- its population almost uniformly sees its standard of living as improving, and largely believes current economic conditions are good or excellent. Americans, much in line with the decline narrative, remain less optimistic about their standard of living, and continue to rate the economy poorly.
However, despite widespread economic optimism among the Chinese population, there is evidence that many Chinese have yet to feel the full effects of the country's growth. Feelings about income security have remained stagnant in recent years, and only a small segment of the population rates its lives highly enough to be "thriving." In fact, the percentage of Chinese who are thriving is lower than that of countries facing acute political or economic crises, such as Spain or Italy. The amount of Chinese who are "thriving" may not see much positive movement over the next few years, as Xi's new government has indicated it wants to rebalance China's economic model in a way that may imply lower growth.
As China looks to project itself as a growing, stable power, these results pose questions regarding the country's internal stability and long-term development. Unless China can speed its transition to an economy that is more focused on meeting the wants and needs of its 1.3 billion citizens, it will likely continue to lag behind the U.S. in many important ways. Even if China is joining the United States' league geopolitically speaking, in key metrics its citizenry and that of the U.S. are not yet on the same footing.
For China, results are based on face-to-face interviews and/or land-line and cellular telephone interviews with at least 2,500 adults living in China, aged 15 and older, conducted in October 2006, October 2007, September-November 2008, August-September 2009, June-July 2010, June-July 2011, and August 2012. Results from the United States are based on landline and cellular telephone interviews with approximately 1,000 adults. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of error ranges from ±2.1 to ±4.1 percentage points. Results presented by subgroup would have a higher margin of error. The margin of error reflects the influence of data weighting. 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.
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.
For more complete methodology and specific survey dates, please review Gallup's Country Data Set details.