When China began its reform and opening up drive in 1978, its gross domestic product (GDP) ranked 10th in the world, trailing not only the United States, but a host of other nations, including Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Canada, Brazil and Spain. In fact, it was smaller than the economy of California.
The story since then is known to all. China played catch-up rapidly. In December of 2014, an IMF report stated that using purchasing power parity, China produced .6 trillion in terms of goods and services that year, compared with .4 trillion for the U.S..
Otherwise, the Conference Board estimates that China's GDP will surpass that of the U.S. by 2018 and PriceWaterhouse Coopers forecasts that China's economy will be bigger than the U.S.' before 2030.
The trend seems to be clear that China will have the world's largest economy in the coming years or decades, if not already. But it is true that in the per capita sense, China's GDP is much smaller.
Like the varied estimates, perceptions among people in countries are quite different. A Pew Research Center survey released last Thursday shows that across 38 nations polled, a median of 42 percent say the U.S. is the world's leading economy, while 32 percent name China.
People in Latin America and much of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa tend to think the U.S. is the largest economy. And by a 51 percent to 35 percent margin, people in the U.S. name their own country rather than China as the largest economy. That contrasts to a Gallup poll in February of 2016 which showed that by 50 percent to 37 percent, more Americans say China rather than the U.S. is the top economy.
Probably quite surprisingly, in seven of the 10 European Union nations surveyed by Pew, China is regarded as the leading economic power. A plurality in Russia also holds this view. China leads the U.S. by a two-to-one margin in Australia — a longtime U.S. security ally whose largest trading partner is China.
While more countries believe the U.S. is still the largest economy, perceptions of relative U.S. economic power have declined among many of the U.S.' key trading partners and allies, according to the survey. Such a shift is not only true in Europe, but also in countries such as Canada, Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines.
The survey finds that global publics tend to express positive views about China, and more people now express negative views of the U.S. than of China. A median of 47 percent across the 38 nations polled have a favorable view of China, while 37 percent have an unfavorable one; a median of 49 percent see the U.S. in a positive light while 39 percent offer an unfavorable view.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the region where China receives its most positive ratings, a clear refutation of those who have criticized China's role in Africa. At 72 percent, Nigerians' assessment of China is the most positive on the survey. Also, 70 percent of Russians express a favorable view of China.
China is also viewed very favorably in Latin America, where 51 percent express a favorable opinion of China while 26 percent express an unfavorable view — again, a refutation of criticism of China's growing role in Latin America.
In the Middle East, the favorable view of China is 53 percent, against 43 percent unfavorable. It is the area where China continues to lead the U.S. in favorability rating, a reflection of U.S. foreign policy failure in the region despite its heavy involvement, or intervention, diplomatically and militarily.
While Europeans are divided on China, the share of the public with a positive opinion of China has increased significantly in countries such as Spain, France and the UK.
China has suffered a drop in its favorable view in South Korea, India and Vietnam, but the survey does not say whether this was due to China's strained relations with these countries due to China's strong opposition to the THAAD anti-missile defense system in South Korea, the border standoff with India or a maritime territorial dispute with Vietnam.
In the U.S., 44 percent view China favorably while 47 percent express an unfavorable view. That is less exciting than a Gallup poll in February which showed that 50 percent in the U.S. now view China favorably, the best since the end of the 1980s.