Chinese underwhelmed by 'world's No. 1 economy' data, preferring clean air, freedoms

A man walking by the Huangpu River in downtown Shanghai, on March 14, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS
A man walking by the Huangpu River in downtown Shanghai, on March 14, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP) - China may be poised to overtake the United States as the world's top economy sooner than expected, according to one measure, but some underwhelmed Chinese would rather have clean air and political freedoms.

The World Bank on Wednesday published a vast study on the rankings of national wealth creation on the basis of 2011 figures. It was carried out with several international organisations to compare national production figures in nominal terms, and also to reflect differences in buying power - or purchasing power parity (PPP).

Gross domestic product (GDP) for the United States in 2011 amounted to US$15.533 trillion (S$19.5 trillion), more than twice China's US$7.321 trillion. But after adjusting for PPP, the figure for China rose to US$13.495 trillion - which means that the rapidly growing Asian giant could overtake the United States as soon as this year.

But there was scepticism, and cynicism, among Chinese social media users. "They are talking about PPP, not GDP," wrote one of them on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter. "As long as GDP, China is still far behind US," continued the post, which was written in English and was echoed by several others.

Some Weibo users suggested they were more interested in tangible indicators directly related to their quality of life.

"Low income, cannot breath freely, no freedom, why should I care even if it's No. 1 in the Universe? Not to mention No. 1 on Earth," wrote a user.

"Is this more important than blue sky and clear water?" posted another.

China's decades-long economic boom has brought rising environmental problems, with large parts of the country repeatedly blanketed in thick smog and both waterways and land polluted.

One user suggested that such rankings were more closely watched overseas than in China.

"No domestic reports about this, only foreign media always talk about it," the post said.

Thursday was a public holiday in China so official reaction was not immediately available. The Communist authorities have in the past played down such talk, keen instead to stress that in per capita terms, their people remain a long way behind the world's richest nations.