News media around the world are trumpeting a sensational headline for the global economy: China No. 1, the United States No. 2.
The U.S. economy has been the global leader since overtaking Great Britain in 1872. According to the world's leading statistical agency, however, America is on the brink to lose its status as the world's largest economy in 2014.
The statistics, based on the estimates of the real cost of living - what money can buy in different countries, known as purchasing power parity (PPP), was released on April 30 by the World Bank's International Comparison Program (ICP), the largest global statistical operation, covering 199 economies from eight regions. After extensive research, the ICP concluded that China is surpassing the United States as the world's biggest economy.
The size of Chinese economy, reported the ICP, is far larger than anyone had previously expected - China's economy was 87 percent the size of the U.S. economy in 2011 (the latest year available). With the International Monetary Fund expecting China's economy to have grown 24 percent between 2011 and 2014 while the United States is expected to expand only 7.6 percent, China is projected to overtake the U.S. by the end of the year.
"This day," writes Michael Schuman of Time, "of course, was always going to arrive. The ascent of China to the world's No. 1 slot has been inevitable ever since the country embarked on its great quest for wealth in the 1980s. With a population heading toward 1.4 billion, the question has been when, not if, China will topple the U.S. from its lofty perch. Still, we cannot ignore the historic significance of that switch. The U.S. has been the globe's unrivaled economic powerhouse for more than a century. The fact that China will replace the U.S. at the top is yet another signal of how economic and political clout is rapidly shifting to the East from the West."
"The figures revolutionize the picture of the world's economic landscape," says Chris Giles, the Economics Editor of the Financial Times, "boosting the importance of large emerging market countries. The findings will intensify arguments about control over global international organizations such as the World Bank and IMF, which are increasingly out of line with the balance of global economic power."
China's impressive economic growth is undeniably an historical miracle. But China has not unseated the United States to become the world's leading economic power. "China is huge, but not as huge as the U.S.," as Harvard economist Jeffrey Frankel puts it.
Contrary to recent headlines, China is not on pace to surpass the United States as the world's preeminent economic power, says Frankel, Professor of Capital Formation and Growth at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "This claim is a startling development, or it would be if the claim were not essentially wrong," according to Dr. Frankel, "in fact, the United States remains the world's largest national economy by a substantial margin."
"The ICP data compare countries' GDP using purchasing power parity exchange rates, rather than market rates," explains the Harvard economist, "this is the right thing to do when looking at real income per capita in order to measure people's living standards. But it is the wrong thing to do when looking at national income in order to measure the country's weight in the global economy. The bottom line is that, by either criterion - per capita income (at PPP exchange rates) or aggregate GDP (at market rates) - the day when China surpasses the U.S. remains in the future. At market exchange rates, the American economy is still almost double the size of China's (83 percent larger, to be precise)."
Even by the PPP measure of per capita income, China is still a poor country: China's per capita income only ranks the 99th out of the world's countries, behind Thailand and the Dominican Republic and about the same as Turkmenistan and Albania's.
And on a per-person basis, the Chinese have just 16 percent of Americans' spending power - U.S. per capita income totaled $47,153 in 2011, compared with China's $7,599, according the official World Bank statistics - a reflection of America's much higher productivity and relative wealth.
So for now, as Christopher Ingraham of Washington Post suggested, "Everybody chill out ... no need to fret - the United States is still No. 1." There is much China has to overcome before it can actually surpass the United States.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.