Who’s bigger: China or Japan?

According to GDP figures released on 15 August, China overtook Japan in the second quarter of 2010 to become the world’s second largest economy. This raises two questions: just what do the GDP figures mean and why has this happened?

The GDP figures are total figures measured in US dollars at current exchange rates. According to these nominal figures, Japan’s GDP was $1.286 trillion in the second quarter of 2010; China’s was $1.335 trillion. This follows several years when Chinese growth rates have massively exceeded Japanese ones.

As far as explanations are concerned, economists look to a number of different factors, including investment policies, relative exchange rates, confidence, deflation in Japan and the scope for catching up in China.

The following podcasts and webcasts look at these questions, as do the articles.

Podcasts and webcasts
China eyes Japan’s slowing GDP growth BBC News, Roland Buerk (16/8/10)
Japan’s economic strategy ‘not happening’ BBC Today Programme Interview with Dr Seijiro Takeshita of Mizuho International banks (16/8/10)
China’s growth rate slows to 10.3% as lending tightens BBC News, Chris Hogg (15/7/10)
China exports jump in May BBC News, Chris Hogg (10/6/10)
China Overtakes Japan in 2Q As No. 2 Economy Associated Press on YouTube (16/8/10)
China’s economy takes over Japan’s AsianCorrespondent on YouTube (16/8/10)

China overtakes Japan to become world’s second-biggest economy Telegraph, Roland Gribben (17/8/10)
Chinese economy eclipses Japan’s Financial Times, Lindsay Whipp and Jamil Anderlini (16/8/10)
Decoding China’s modesty Financial Times blogs, Jamil Anderlini (17/8/10)
China ‘overtakes Japan in economic prowess’ asiaone news (17/8/10)
China overtakes Japan to become second largest economy in world Irish Times, Clifford Coonan (17/8/10)
China Passes Japan As Second-Largest Economy Huffington Post, Joe McDonald (16/8/10)

World Economic Outlook July 2010 Update IMF (7/7/10)
China Economic Statistics and Indicators EconomyWatch
Japan Economic Statistics and Indicators EconomyWatch


  1. Why may simple GDP figures be a poor indicator of the relative size of the Chinese and Japanese economies?
  2. If purchasing-power parity figures were used, how would this affect the relative sizes of the two economies? Explain why purchasing-power parity exchange rates are so different from nominal exchange rates in the two countries.
  3. What impact have the relative exchange rates of the two countries had on economic growth?
  4. Why are simple GDP figures a poor indicator of living standards?
  5. What factors will determine whether income inequality is likely to widen or narrow in China over the coming years?
  6. What factors explain Japan’s low rate of economic growth since the early 1990s? How likely is it that these factors will apply in China in the future?