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Will China ever overtake the US economy?

July 15, 2024

China's ambition to be the world's largest economy has been dented by COVID-19, the real estate crisis and an aging population. Boosting growth will be the prime focus at an important Communist Party meeting.

A Chinese flag flaps in the wind in front of cargo containers on the dock of a Chinese port
China is trying to become less reliant on exports by boosting domestic spendingImage: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

The idea of China's outstripping the United States to become the world's largest economy has been a fixation for policymakers and economists for decades. What will happen, they argue, when the US — one of the most dynamic, productive economies — is usurped by an authoritarian regime with a workforce of 750 million?

Predictions of when exactly China would steal the US's crown have come thick and fast ever since the 2008/9 financial crisis, which hampered growth in the United States and Europe for many years. Before what became known as the Great Recession, China saw double-digit annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth for at least five years. In the decade following the crisis, China's economy continued to expand by 6%-9% annually. That is, until COVID-19 struck.

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As if the pandemic — which led to strict lockdown measures that brought the economy to its knees — weren't enough, the Asian powerhouse was also plunged into a real estate crash. At its peak, the property market was responsible for a third of China's economy. However, rules introduced by Beijing in 2020 put limits on how much debt property developers could take on. Many firms went bankrupt, leaving an estimated 20 million unfinished or delayed homes unsold.

Around the same time, declining trade relations with the West also weakened growth in the world's second-largest economy. Having encouraged China's ascendancy for decades, by the late 2010s, the US shifted to containing Beijing's economic and military ambitions, if only to delay the inevitable advance.

Has China's economy peaked?

The apparent change of fortunes for the Chinese economy was so stark that a new term emerged about a year ago: "Peak China." The theory was that the Chinese economy was now burdened by many structural issues, such as a heavy debt load, slowing productivity, low consumption and an aging population. Those weaknesses, along with geopolitical tensions over Taiwan and a decoupling of trade by the West, sparked speculation that China's impending economic supremacy may be delayed, or never happen.

But Wang Wen from Renmin University of China's Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies told DW that the notion of Peak China was a "myth," adding that China's total economic output reached almost 80% of the US output in 2021.

Wang said that as long as Beijing maintained "internal stability and external peace," the Chinese economy would soon overtake the US. He cited the desire of millions of rural Chinese to move to urban areas, where earnings and quality of life were reportedly much higher.

"China's urbanization rate is only 65%. If calculated at 80% in the future, it means that another 200 to 300 million people will enter urban areas, which will generate a huge increase in the real economy," he said.

Productivity growth has 'disappeared'

Other economists, however, believe that the issues that sparked the Peak China narrative were likely building for several years.

"The Chinese economy grew so fast in the early 2000s because of high productivity," Loren Brandt, economy professor at the University of Toronto, told DW, adding that productivity was responsible for about 70% of GDP growth during China's first three decades of reform, initiated in 1978.

"After the financial crisis, productivity growth just disappeared. It's now maybe one-quarter of what it was before 2008," the expert in the Chinese economy added.

China watchers had hoped that a key meeting of China's Communist Party this week would propose major stimulus measures to tackle the numerous short-term economic headwinds. But they now think Beijing will instead target growth in certain sectors, like advanced and green technology, while also boosting pensions and the private sector.

A worker in a purple suit inspects a circular disk at a semiconductor plant
Faced with US export curbs, China is ramping up its own chip manufacturingImage: picture alliance / Chu Baorui / Costfoto

China's total debts have widened to more than 300% of GDP. A large chunk is owned by local governments. Foreign direct investment has fallen for 12 months in a row, dropping 28.2% in the first five months of 2024 alone. Despite huge investments to ramp up production of new technologies, some of Beijing's trade partners are restricting Chinese imports.

"Here is an economy that has invested enormously in [research and development], people, and first-class infrastructure. But it is not being leveraged in a way that's helping to sustain growth in the economy," Brandt told DW.

Unintended consequences of Xi Jinping's power grab 

Beijing, under President Xi Jinping's rule, has also moved toward more centralization of the economy through state ownership of industries. China's leaders decided the next wave of growth would be built on the back of domestic consumption, allowing the country to be less reliant on foreign exports.

However, many social programs haven't kept pace with China's economic miracle. Consumers who can no longer rely on low-cost health care, education and more than a basic state pension, are wary of spending more of their savings. Their household wealth has dropped by up to 30% as a result of the property crash, Brandt said.

"[Decentralization] during the first two or three decades gave room for local governments to make decisions," he added. "China benefited enormously from the autonomy, freedom and incentives that they had, and the enormous dynamism from the private sector. These issues are going to be much harder to reverse, especially under the current leadership."

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In the late 2000s, the private sector made up close to two-thirds of the Chinese economy, but by the first half of last year, that share had dropped to 40%. The state-run and mixed-owned sector has grown much larger. While China now has the most firms listed in the Fortune magazine's ranking of leading global corporations, those companies are much less profitable than their US counterparts, averaging profit margins of 4.4% compared to 11.3% for US multinationals.

Is China the new Japan?

The big fear is that all these factors could see China's economy go the way of Japan. After World War II, Japan experienced an economic miracle, marked by decades of high growth that caused a massive stock market and real estate bubble.

At its peak, Japan was predicted by some economists to overtake the US as the world's largest economy. Then in 1992, the bubble burst, fortunes were lost, and the economy went into a tailspin. Japan has since failed to make up for several decades of lost growth. 

Chinese economists, meanwhile, point to the country's industrial production being larger than the US's. Last year's GDP growth at 5.2% was more than double the US growth rate. The Asian country's economy already surpassed the US in 2016 when measured in purchasing power parity (PPP).

"In the past 45 years, China's development has faced many economic problems," Wang told DW. "But compared with the depression 30 years ago, the high debt 20 years ago, and the housing crash 10 years ago, the current problem is not the most serious." 

Edited by: Ashutosh Pandey

Editor's note: This article was updated to change the term industrial GDP to industrial production. 

The article, originally published on July 10, 2024, was updated on July 15 to reflect the start of a key Communist Party meeting in China.