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China v the US: how the superpowers compare

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As the US president Barack Obama prepares for his meeting with the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping, we decided to take another look at both China and the US and see whether the two superpowers can be compared.

We last did this in 2011 but were intrigued to see how it would look with updated data (where possible) and with the addition of some of your suggestions. This is by no means the definitive guide and many of the indicators, though they illustrate some interesting points, may not adequately capture the complex issues at the heart of both countries.

As one commenter, @file124528 wrote:

"The United States has an elected government. The American government is legitimate. And there is a separation of legislative, judicial, and executive powers.

China is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. There is no separation of powers. No checks and balances. No independent press."

This is one potential issue that the data may fail to frame sufficiently. However, we have tried to include as many of the suggested indicators mentioned in the comments to broaden the range of measures.

We've added GDP per capita as @despoticonation suggested that a GDP per capita comparison "is more insightful in reflecting the amazing differences in the standard of living for the people of China compared to the US". China's GDP per capita was $9,100, whereas the US boasted a figure of $48,900.

There is also an extreme contrast in the respective current account balance - the US has the world's largest deficit burden, while China has the world's greatest budget surplus.

Pollution per capita and investments in alternative sources of energy generation were also suggested indicators. Although we couldn't feature all of them on the graphic, we have included the collated data in the downloadable spreadsheet.

The World Health Organization (WHO) publish data on indoor air, outdoor air and water pollution by country showing estimated numbers of deaths and disability-adjusted life years (DALY) attributable to these environmental factors. According to WHO, One DALY can be thought of as one lost year of "healthy" life.

So if we take the DALY measure and apply it to outdoor pollution, we get the following results: China records 1.4 DALYs per 1,000 capita per year, whereas the US reports a figure of 0.8.

Also there were an estimated 275,600 deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution in 2002 in China compared with 41,200 in the US. Urban outdoor air pollution is estimated to cause 1.3 million deaths worldwide per year.

Deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution (2002). Deaths per 1000 capita, per year. Map by WHO Guardian

The WHO map above shows how China and the US compare for estimated deaths attributable to outdoor air pollution per 1,000 capita per year (2002 data).

WHO's figures also show us water pollution by country. These environmental health factors reveal some interesting differences. Whereas improved water and sanitation stands at 100% in the US - there wasn't a single estimated death due to diarrhoea in 2002 - in China 44%

had improved sanitation in 2002 with an estimated 95,600 deaths due to diarrhoea.

According to the International Energy Agency, China's share of total renewables in the global primary energy supply stands at 15.6% compared with 4.2% in the US.

In the previous post, contributor J.Nathan Matias discussed the difficulties faced when trying to compare data, especially a subject such as unemployment which unfortunately is not recorded uniformally across the world. Matias concluded that "the disparity between American and Chinese unemployment results from differences of measurement rather than actual differences".

We've used an estimated 2012 figure from the CIA World Factbook. For China the unemployment rate, according to CIA Factbook is 6.4%, with 8.2% in the US. However, the official unemployment rate published by China recorded registered urban unemployment, which excludes private enterprises and migrants, at 4.1% in 2012

Matias would bring our attention to the difference in calculations to explain the vast difference these two indicators could hide if you were to just take the headline figure:

Giles, Park, and Zhang in "What is China's True Unemployment Rate?" (China Economic Review, Volume 16, Issue 2, 2005, Pages 149-170) explain: "Official statistics count as unemployed only those individuals who register for unemployment benefits with local governments, and are not based on representative sample surveys. Not surprisingly, the official, or registered, unemployment rate is widely believed to significantly understate the true unemployment rate.

The US, on the other hand, uses the Current Population Survey of 66,000 households across more than 2,000 selected regions to model a more accurate picture of unemployment in any given month. This number is higher, and in theory, more accurate, than simply measuring the number claiming unemployment benefits.

When Giles and colleagues performed a population survey to correct the Chinese numbers, they found that unemployment could be as much as 3-7% higher than reported. That's between 38 and 89 million unemployed people who aren't counted (by 2002 population figures)."

Source: CIA Factbook Guardian

Another commenter stated that not enough attention had been given to the male/female ratio in China. The population pyramids above from the CIA World Factbook show how the population of each country breaks down by gender and age. Can you spot any interesting patterns?

Source: CIA Factbook Guardian

Also average household income was also another indicator that was requested by our users. Forbes reported the results of the Survey of Chinese Consumer Finances, collected by Tsinghua University and funded by Citibank (China) Co. Ltd, in 2010 and they made for some interesting reading:

The average annual household income in China, converted into US dollars, was $10,220, compared with $84,300 in the US (the median US income is $47,300.) One of the few similarities was average household assets: in both China and the US, the average family's assets were about eight times its average income.

All the data we have gathered is in the spreadsheet for you to download. Do you think it is possible to compare two countries such as China and the US? What measures would you have liked to seen included?

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