When, How (and If) China Will Become a Developed Country

When, How (and If) China Will Become a Developed Country
Jan 21, 2020 By Degen Hill , eChinacities.com

Countries around the world, despite their differences and unique attributes, are divided into two categories: developed and developing. When it comes to China, many people aren’t sure which category the Asian giant falls into. Walking around Shanghai or Beijing would surely garner the “developed” response, but in many rural areas, it’s evident that certain aspects of Chinese life leave much to be desired. Therein lies the questions: What defines a country as developed? And when and how will China become a developed nation?

When and How (and If) China Will Become a Developed Country
Photo: zhang kaiyv 

Developed vs. developing

Determining a country’s status as developed or developing requires attention to several factors, including economic markers, such as GDP, GNP and per capita income, as well as levels of industrialization, literacy rates and living standards. While some institutions, such as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, have statistical measures for the convenience of classification, there is no clear-cut definition or tool by which to accurately assess whether a country is developed or developing.

Key indicators of a developed country include a strong economy, high income of its citizens, well-developed infrastructure, high-quality education and healthcare, and low levels of illiteracy, infant mortality and death. Developing countries, on the other hand, are typically the opposite. The challenge of creating a standard definition is that the countries of the world — and in China’s case even provinces — are so drastically different across these factors that it’s hard to compare them. For example, the WTO defines developed countries as having income per capita of 12,376 USD or more. China’s was 9,970 USD in 2018, putting it firmly in the developing camp, yet very high literacy and mobile phone ownership rates paint a different picture.

The benefits of “developing” status

Although becoming a developed country is without doubt the end goal, there are many benefits to being a developing country. One of the primary benefits is that developing countries can often advance their economy through strategic free trade agreements. For example, when China joined the WTO in 2001, Beijing insisted on three key principles, one of which was that it would be recognized as a developing country. “China will never agree to be deprived of its entitlement to special and differential treatment as a developing member,” China’s Ministry of Commerce reminded the world in a statement about WTO reforms in 2018.

Under WTO regulations, developing countries can receive “special and differential treatment”, ranging from longer timetables for implementing agreements to weaker market access commitments. China also found that having a developing status came in handy when negotiating the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement last year, with the Ministry of Ecology and Environment stating that as the world’s largest developing country, China has the right to receive funds from developed countries to help it cope with the effects of climate change. That China is the world’s second-biggest economy and number-one polluter is more than a little ironic.

China’s development progress

China has loudly and consistently voiced that it is the “largest developing country in the world,” a status that has been recognized by the WTO. Over the years, however, China has also touted its development progress, especially in terms of its economy and reform and opening-up policies, which span everything from education and healthcare to transportation and infrastructure.

China is now the world’s second-largest economy, the top trading partner with multiple Asian countries, the second-largest trading partner of Latin America and, according to the World Bank, has lifted more than 850 million people out of extreme poverty. Confusingly, however, China has expressed a desire to overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy while simultaneously remaining adamant about maintaining its developing country status.

Despite China’s assertions that it is a developing country, German Chancellor Angela Merkel questioned its status in 2018, telling China’s top climate envoy Xie Zhenhua that as a leader in technological innovation, China can now be considered competition. The country has indeed made significant achievements in its development, especially when it comes to technology, but the question still stands: When will China become a fully developed country?

According to Beijing’s “Two Centenary Goals” blueprint, China will become a completely developed country by 2049. The two primary objectives on the road to achieving this are eradicating absolute poverty by 2020 and creating a “moderately well-off society” by 2021. To do so, China is aiming to double its 2010 per-capita GDP to 10,000 USD by 2021 and complete urbanization by around 2030.

Here are some figures about China that exemplify how it fits into both developing and developed definitions:

According to 2015 data from WHO and UNICEF, about 36% of the rural population in China does not have access to improved sanitation

● As of the end of 2018, there were 16.6 million people (1.7% of the population) living below China's national poverty line of 2,300 yuan per year

● As of 2018, the literacy rate was 96.8%

● According to the World Bank, China ranked 73rd for per capita GDP in 2018

● According to the Bureau of National Statistics, China now contributes more than 30% of world economic growth

● According to China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, the unemployment rate as of the end of 2019 was 3.62%

● China’s per capita water availability is just one-fourth of the world average

However, one of the challenges of defining China’s status is the economic figures the country chooses to release. According to David M Lampton, Professor and Director of SAIS-China and China Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS, “Economic indicators are well established in the metrics [of whether a country is developed or not, but]… that doesn’t mean that China provides great data or reliable data, so there is always the question of what is the underlying reality.”

When and how?

Regardless of the predicted 2049 timeline to become a developed country, the choice to transition from developing to developed is ultimately on China. Due to the lack of rigorous guidelines across several categories, the reality is that countries are largely in control of their own status.  As China continues to serve as a “model” for other developing countries, it’s not likely that Beijing will give up its current status, which would have it be held to different standards and no longer able tout itself as a “champion” among other developing countries.

If China is ever going to be considered a developed country, it’s sure to be on China’s terms, and Beijing has made it clear that it isn’t keen on being “pushed around” by other nations. China operates on heavily realist international relations principles, so if the status switch from developing to developed is ever to occur, it will likely happen only if and when it’s best for China, and not when it meets everyone else’s criteria.

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Keywords: China developed country


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China plans well ahead in for the next 5- 10 years. The massive improvement in basic infrastructure especially the railway is an testimonial.

Sep 24, 2020 10:26 Report Abuse



interesting article

Jul 14, 2020 09:44 Report Abuse



Good article. In terms of per capita GDP and technology and innovation, China is a developing country. On the other hand its mounting size makes it impossible for other countries not to feel the pressures of competition.

May 13, 2020 11:41 Report Abuse



Interesting article.....

Mar 24, 2020 13:44 Report Abuse



THE one fact that people in China cannot get away from or even understand is this. After WW2, the western world (with Europe ravaged) developed rapidly and by the beginning of the 1980s - 35 years - it was built into what we know and live in today. This was done without any internet, any mobile communication and a far less globalized travel infrastructure. Now China which began in the mid-1980s has had the same amount of time but with Western money, western help, advantages such as the internet, modern technology. However it still is not built yet and claims to still be a devloping country in articles like this. At some point, the building has to stop. In China it never does though. Partly because the foundations were done on the cheap and partly because the country likes to make it up as they go along (5 year plans for example).

Jan 25, 2020 16:16 Report Abuse