17 January 2011

How Big is China?

One of the themes of my graduate seminar this semester on quantitative methods of policy analysis is to develop tools that enable more intuitive understandings of the numbers that we encounter in policy analysis.  As the course goes along I'll be posting up examples of efforts to achieve such understandings, as I did last week.

Here is another excellent example of an effort to create an intuitive understanding of something that we hear about every day, but most of us hardly understand -- China.  The following comparison comes courtesy Thomas Barnett via James Fallows. How big is China?  Fallows explains:
If Americans wanted to imagine what it would take to be "strong" in the way China currently is, [Barnett] said, all we'd have to do is think of moving the entire population of the Western Hemisphere into our existing borders. Every single Mexican. (Rather than enforcing the southern border, we'd require everyone to cross it, headed north.) Every Haitian, Cuban, and Jamaican. Everyone from Central America. All 190 million from Brazil. And so on. Even the Canadians. China, by the way, is just about the same size as the United States, though a larger share of its land area is desert, mountain, or otherwise nonarable.

If we did that, we'd be up to about a billion people -- and then if we also took every single person from Nigeria, and for good measure everyone in hyper-crowded Japan too, we'd finally be up to China's 1.3 billion size. At that point, like China, we'd have tremendous scale in everything. Rich people. Big businesses. A huge work force. Countless numbers of multi-million population cities. And we would also have a tremendous amount of poverty, plus pressure on resources of every kind, from water to food to living space. Just as China does now. Scale gives China some strengths. But it also creates tremendous challenges, as Americans would recognize if we thought about this prospect for even a minute. Seriously, reflect on this, and consider that it is China's reality now.
I for one now think differently about the size of China than I did before reading this comparison.