Economic development's purpose is to improve the conditions of human beings. Robert Lucas put it eloquently, in frequently quoted words, examining the consequences of different rates of economic growth: ‘I do not see how one can look at these figures without seeing them as possibilities. Is there some action a government of India could take that would lead the Indian economy to grow… If so, what, exactly?… The consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these are simply staggering: Once one starts to think about them, it is hard to think about anything else.'
In this framework it should be stated, soberly and with due consideration, that China's economy since 1978 is the greatest economic achievement in world history. This article shows this in the prosaic language of statistics. But of course that is not the real issue. What really counts is the consequences of this for human beings – escape from poverty, improvement in life expectancy, improved health, expanded potential for education, improvement in the position of women, and many other dimensions. Economic statistics, such as GDP per capita, simply underpin this improvement in human conditions.
The scale of China's economic achievement
A problem in assessing the true scale of China's economic achievement is that partial statistics are frequently used to state it. Some of these, for example that China has become the world's second largest economy, or that it has raised 620 million people out of internationally defined poverty, are extremely striking (Quah, 2010). But nevertheless, because they are partial, they do not capture the full scope of what has occurred. Only when systematic data is used does the full magnitude of China's achievement become clear.
Again, even when systematic comparisons are attempted, the scale of China's economic achievement is frequently underestimated because inappropriate measures are used. For example when comparing rates of economic growth, in calculating contributions to economic welfare, it is misleading to take individual countries as the unit of comparison, rather than the proportion of world population affected – rapid economic growth in a small country evidently contributes less to human well being than rapid growth in a large country.
In order to give an initial systematic comparison, therefore, Table 1 shows the percentage of world population affected at the point when sustained rapid growth commenced in major economies. For example the first country to experience sustained rapid economic growth was the UK in the industrial revolution - which was in a country with 2.0 per cent of the world's population. The sustained rapid US economic growth after the Civil War was in a country with 3.3 per cent of the world's population.