China: Size obscures reality
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China: Size obscures reality

Most of the world’s poor live in Asia – and loads of them still live in China.


Crowds in Guangzhou, pic by Steve Jurvetson (Flickr CC)

China, with its international reputation for rapid and soaring economic growth, is still home to 170 million people who earn under $1.25 per day (2008 statistics). That’s 13 percent of the entire population. If these Chinese poor had their own country, it would be the 7th largest in the world and also one of the absolute poorest. So all those new Chinese millionaires aren’t really representative of the country, though maybe, in terms of inequality, they are. It’s easier to be a millionaire when you can do it on the backs of workers who make $1.25 a day.

The above statistics are from an editorial written for the Japan Times by the former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Curtis S. Chin. Chin further asserts that China has lead the world in speed and numbers when it comes to pulling people out of poverty.

But it could do better.

From the Bangkok Post:

[China’s] defence spending has grown almost twice as fast as its GDP. And, by picking territorial fights with its neighbours and pursuing a muscular foreign policy, China’s leaders are compelling other Asian states to work more closely with the Unites States and each other.

This puts the no-longer sleeping giant’s priorities into perspective. Is bulking up the largest military in the world more important than alleviating abject poverty?

Furthermore, according to a new book by the ADB, the overall wealth of India, China and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries could surpass that of the US and Europe by 2030. This predictive statistic is less impressive when you compare the regions’ populations. It will be much longer before China and company surpass the US and EU in terms of per capita wealth – if ever.

Per capita or overall, growth means environmental problems as well – and not just for China, India and ASEAN nations.

From the Philippine Information Agency:

The book’s highlights predict that unless the challenges of energy and water security and reduction of CO2 emissions are addressed, these could amplify global environmental risks and geopolitical tensions. To meet their potential, each economy will need to manage energy, food, and water effectively, balancing growth with environmental sustainability.

Not to speculate too wildly, but could China be increasing military spending in anticipation of resource wars?

Last, but not least, China’s biggest economic advantage, a large workforce, will change drastically in the coming years. Its one child policy and selective abortion suggest that China’s population will be dominated by old people and have an unusually large amount of single men with no hope of finding wives. How this will play out is unknown. Western Europe and Japan have old populations, but are also wealthier and better equipped to deal with them. And of course China’s sheer size is unprecedented.