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Congressional Research Service, China’s Economic Rise – History, Trends, Challenges and Implications for the United States, February 5, 2018

The attached report is produced by the Congressional Research Service as a background for China's current economic system and its rise as a world economic power.

February 5, 2018


Prior to the initiation of economic reforms and trade liberalization nearly 40 years ago, China maintained policies that kept the economy very poor, stagnant, centrally controlled, vastly inefficient, and relatively isolated from the global economy. Since opening up to foreign trade and investment and implementing free-market reforms in 1979, China has been among the world’s fastest-growing economies, with real annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaging 9.5% through 2017, a pace described by the World Bank as “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.” Such growth has enabled China, on average, to double its GDP every eight years and helped raise an estimated 800 million people out of poverty. China has become the world’s largest economy (on a purchasing power parity basis), manufacturer, merchandise trader, and holder of foreign exchange reserves. This in turn has made China a major commercial partner of the United States. China is the largest U.S. merchandise trading partner, biggest source of imports, and third-largest U.S. export market. China is also the largest foreign holder of U.S. Treasury securities, which help fund the federal debt and keep U.S. interest rates low.

As China’s economy has matured, its real GDP growth has slowed significantly, from 14.2% in 2007 to 6.9% in 2017, and that growth is projected by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to fall to 5.8% by 2022. The Chinese government has embraced slower economic growth, referring to it as the “new normal” and acknowledging the need for China to embrace a new growth model that relies less on fixed investment and exporting, and more on private consumption, services, and innovation to drive economic growth. Such reforms are needed in order for China to avoid hitting the “middle-income trap,” when countries achieve a certain economic level but begin to experience sharply diminishing economic growth rates because they are unable to adopt new sources of economic growth, such as innovation.

The Chinese government has made innovation a top priority in its economic planning through a number of high-profile initiatives, such as “Made in China 2025,” a plan announced in 2015 to upgrade and modernize China’s manufacturing in 10 key sectors through extensive government assistance in order to make China a major global player in these sectors. However, such measures have increasingly raised concerns that China intends to use industrial policies to decrease the country’s reliance on foreign technology (including by locking out foreign firms in China) and eventually dominate global markets. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has described the Made in China 2025 initiative as “a very, very serious challenge, not just to us, but to Europe, Japan and the global trading system.”

China’s efforts to expand its economic influence globally are another area of concern to U.S. policymakers, including China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) to finance and help build infrastructure projects in Asia, Africa, Europe, and elsewhere. Many analysts contend that China could use the initiative to boost its industries facing overcapacity (such as steel), gain new overseas markets, influence other countries to adopt China’s economic model, and expand China’s “soft power” in the numerous countries that may participate in the initiative.

China’s growing global economic influence and the economic and trade policies it maintains have significant implications for the United States and hence are of major interest to Congress. While China is a large and growing market for U.S. firms, its incomplete transition to a free-market economy has resulted in economic policies deemed harmful to U.S. economic interests, such as industrial policies and theft of U.S. intellectual property. This report provides background on China’s economic rise; describes its current economic structure; identifies the challenges China faces to maintain economic growth; and discusses the challenges, opportunities, and implications of China’s economic rise for the United States.

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