Is China Still a Developing Country?

Donald Trump is mad at Sweden for insisting on holding a fair trial for an American citizen accused of assault. He’s mad at France for instituting a new tax that would affect American companies. And he’s mad at China all over again because they continue to insist on being classified as a “developing country” in the World Trade Organization.

That last one should be easy to sort out, no? Let’s just pop over to the WTO site and find out what the definition of developing is:

There are no WTO definitions of “developed” and “developing” countries. Members announce for themselves whether they are “developed” or “developing” countries.

Huh. That makes things tricky. In fact, not only does the WTO not define the term, they don’t even provide a list of developed and developing countries. I guess they don’t need the grief. In any case, the US has been griping about this for a while, and not without cause. Here’s what the White House says:

While some developing-country designations are proper, many are patently unsupportable in light of current economic circumstances. For example, 7 out of the 10 wealthiest economies in the world as measured by Gross Domestic Product per capita on a purchasing-power parity basis — Brunei, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Macao, Qatar, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates — currently claim developing-country status. Mexico, South Korea, and Turkey — members of both the G20 and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — also claim this status.

This list leaves out Israel, for some reason, which is yet another high-income country that claims developing status. But I guess there’s no need to rock that particular boat at the moment. For now, the question is whether China should count as a developed country. So should it?

There’s no question that China punches above its weight on the world trade scene. Still, the usual measures of whether a country is developed are their Human Development Index and their per-capita GDP. In China’s case, at least, it doesn’t much matter which you use. It ends up at about the same place regardless of whether you use HDI, per-capita GDP, or per-capita GDP at purchasing power parity. The last one is the simplest, so here’s a selected list of countries ranked by per-capita GDP (PPP):

China ranks around #70, sandwiched between Turkmenistan and Algeria. It’s a judgment call whether this should place them in the developed category, but I’d probably say no. Historically, it’s difficult for countries to break out of the mid-low income category into the rich-country category, and China is nowhere near that yet. Add another $10,000 in per-capita GDP and it will be another story.

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