Infographic Of The Day: China’s Risky Game Of Catch-Up


China is the future, as you may have heard. But that future has not quite yet arrived. And the fact is, in 20 years China won’t be quite like any country in the West — no matter how China evolves, it’s not going to be some neophyte version of a stable Western country. It’ll be a behemoth quite unlike any other developed nation in the world.

You can get a taste of just why that is in this infographic from The Guardian, which shows how China and the U.S. compare on various metrics, ranging from GDP per capita to their respective movie industries:


[Click for full-sized view]

There are all kinds of fascinating figures in there. But the most telling is per capita GDP. Occasionally, you hear wild projections that China will catch up in 40 years or so. But it’s silly to even consider projections that reach that far into the future. For now, China’s per capita GDP is less than one-tenth of ours. That’s certain to rise — and the Chinese government thinks it could reach $10,000 in about 10 years. Supposedly, $10,000 is a sort of magic number for China, where growth can no longer continue without some massive changes to the Chinese way of centralized government. That’s a scary scenario for China’s bureaucrats; what’s more, the road to $10,000 will only intensify some serious problems.

Urban Chinese already make about three times what rural peasants make — and half of China’s population is rural. Now, consider what happens if that gap continues to grow. The rural population would likely move in droves to cities, looking for better economic prospects. Which in turn might overwhelm the cities themselves, if job growth can’t match the migration. And if that happens, tell me: How would you feel if you were a subsistence farmer, with no savings and no money, while the city fat cats carrying around Louis Vuitton bags and drive Bentleys? Would you maybe consider rioting, or even — just maybe — organizing against the government?

China’s politcos are already bracing for that day, making public statements about wanting to create a real social safety net. But there isn’t one, and China has almost no infrastructure for monitoring wages or collecting taxes. Creating that scaffolding is a formidable challenge, and one upon which the very future of China will rest.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.