China and Japan

I’ve been reading a wave of books in the last few weeks about modern Japan –  the rapid economic rise from the mid 19th century, the out of control militarism that led to the war from 1937 to 1945, and the post-war revival (rather than the last few decades).   And as I read, it left me pondering the relative economic fortunes of Japan and China.

According to the standard reference source for such things – Angus Maddison’s collection of estimates of GDP per capita since the year 1 AD –  in earlier centuries Japan and China were more or less level-pegging for centuries, with China a bit ahead of Japan (a thousand years ago, China is generally accepted as having the highest material living standards anywhere).  Here are the estimates (in 1990 international dollars) through to the 18th century.

maddison chjp

There was, of course, a great divergence between economic progress and living standards in the leading European (and offshoots) economies and those of east Asia, but today I’m more interested in the less-highlighted, but scarcely less dramatic, divergence between economic performance in Japan and that in China.

Maddison’s estimates report that –  despite having turned its back on the world –  Japan had moved ahead of China over the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century: for 1850 the reported estimates are Japan $679 and China $650.   There are only scattered estimates for China for the following few decades, but here is the reported estimate of average per capita real GDP per capita, China as a per cent of Japan.

China GDP pc as % of Japan
1850 88
1870 72
1890 53
1900 46
1913 40

A bit later, the annual estimates start –  with a break when Japan was attempting to conquer China.  Here is the chart to 2008 when Maddison’s estimates end.


The Conference Board has estimates through to the present day, but they only start from 1950.   Here is the PRC’s real GDP per capita as a percentage of Japan’s.

chjp conf board

Productivity estimates are available only for even more recent periods, but on Conference Board numbers they show a pretty similar picture: as at last year, average productivity in the PRC just over 30 per cent of that in Japan.   And that is still probably worse than the situation at the turn of the last century (when –  see above –  China’s real GDP per capita was about 45 per cent of Japan’s).

Of course, it isn’t only Japan that China has fallen so far behind.  Taiwan was a Japanese territory for 50 years after the Sino-Japanese War in the 1890s, and Korea was a Japanese colony/conquest for 40 years.  On the Maddison estimates, 150 years ago both Korea and Taiwan had GDP per capita (estimated at) not much different from that of China.    These days, South Korea (historically less well-developed than the north) has real GDP per capita about 10 per cent less than that of Japan, while Taiwan has real GDP per capita about 15 per cent more than that of Japan.    Both, in other words, are far ahead of the PRC.

taichi conf bd

Relative to Taiwan, the PRC has just now managed to get back up to the relative living standards just prior to the Cultural Revolution.  (And yet this is the regime whose “successes” Simon Bridges lauds.)

There isn’t really much debate about why the PRC has over recent decades still been the disastrous laggard among the historically more advanced east Asian economies (North Korea of course marking out an even worse extreme) –  absence of the rule of law, absence of the sorts of incentives that make for the efficient allocation of capital, primacy of the Party etc etc will do that to a country (the Soviet Union in the 80s was closer in living standards to Japan then than the PRC is to Japan now).

But in some ways I’m more interested in how the gaps opened up in the first place –  before 1950, or even before the overthrow of the Manchu emperors in 1911.  It is easy to say that Japan embraced greater openness, Western technology etc –  initially under external pressure –  but what was it that meant Japan (having, if anything, been more isolated than China for the previous few centuries) made that choice and China did not?   In looking around, I’ve found a couple of relevant journal articles, but if any readers happen to have suggestions of good treatments of the issue (book or article) I would really welcome them.

How well has Japan done since its asset markets crashed?

Gillian Tett’s column in the Financial Times yesterday was devoted to a cautionary note to the Chinese authorities to beware of following Japan’s example following the share market bust that took place after 1989.

There were many things the Japanese authorities could no doubt have done better after 1989, but I’ve long found it a bit surprising just how relatively well Japan has done over the last 25 years.  It isn’t a spectacular performance by any means, and Japan isn’t one of the top tier of OECD countries in terms of either GDP per capita or GDP per hour worked.  That shouldn’t be too surprising –  on most measures of institutional quality/deregulation, Japan tends not to score that well.  Microeconomic reform and liberalisation haven’t been a hallmark of Japanese economic management (see, for example, the TPP negotiations).

But looking at growth in GDP per hour worked for the OECD countries since 1989, Japan has been pretty much in the middle of the pack, with total growth (over 25 years) only about 2 per cent less than the median country.  New Zealand is 4th from the bottom on that measure.

Here is how Japan has done relative to the Anglo countries (and to Germany) since 1989, using OECD data.

GDP phw jap and anglos

This measure takes full account of the changing terms of trade.  Over the full period, Japan has done worse than three of these countries (the US, Australia, and Germany), and rather better than the other three (New Zealand, Canada, and the UK).  Over the last 15 years or so, Japan looks to have done a little less well, but that was well after the equity bubble burst.  It may well have to do with the surge in the terms of trade in the commodity-exporting countries from around 2003/04, matched by a severe decline in Japan’s terms of trade.

Another way to look how Japan has done is to look at growth in total factor productivity since 1989.  I’ve run this chart previously.  Over 25 years, Japan has been in the middle of the pack, a quite unremarkable performance (but materially better than New Zealand, Australia, Canada).

tfp since 89

Would, I trade New Zealand’s economic performance since 1989 for Japan’s?  The large Japanese government debt counts against that, but income/productivity are what pay the debt, and Japan has managed more productivity growth than we have.

Out of interest, here is how OECD countries rank in 2014 on this measure of GDP per hour worked, in current prices, converted to USD at PPP exchange rates.  For New Zealand, bear in mind that (a) 2014 saw the highest terms of trade for decades and (b) we were still ahead of Japan in 1989.  Oh, and Japan hasn’t had the advantage of New Zealand’s “critical economic enabler”, the large scale skills-focused immigration programme.

gdp phw 2014