A 2016 People’s Daily article predicting that China would enter the club of “high-income” nations by 2024 was recently deleted from People’s Daily Online. The deletion was likely due to the article being “maliciously reposted” by a Weibo user, who prefaced it with the sardonic comment, “I found something to brighten up my Lunar New Year’s celebration ….” Before the article was censored, it was widely shared online and drew a bevy of similarly withering comments. CDT editors have archived a copy of the article and republished it in full, along with a selection of comments from Weibo users.
Titled “China is Expected to Enter Its ‘High-Income Phase’ in 2024,” the article was written by economist Zheng Bingwen (郑秉文), director of the Centre for International Social Security Studies (CISS) at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), who specializes in studying market failures in Western economies, national innovation, and social security systems, among other topics. The text itself is not particularly controversial: it describes the challenge of avoiding the “middle-income trap” as China moves from an “upper-middle-income economy” to an “upper-income economy” (as defined by the World Bank). Zheng recounts the experiences of other countries that have managed to leapfrog the “middle-income trap,” and recommends three measures to smooth the transition: improve total factor productivity, continue opening up to the outside world, and implement a market economy. Interestingly, the author cites the experiences of the “four Asian tigers“— the high-growth economies of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea. But Zheng also cautions that simply entering the ranks of upper-income countries is not the same as being a “developed nation,” and writes that even after China attains upper-income status, it should still be considered a “moderately developed nation”:
After crossing the high-income threshold, China will transition to being a “moderately developed nation”
After decades of sustained and rapid development, we have ample confidence in the future: barring any major political upheavals, devastating blows to the economy, or institutional or systemic collapse, there is little doubt that in another six or seven years, China will have successfully leapfrogged over the “middle-income trap.” By then, the First Centenary Goal—building a moderately prosperous society in all respects—will have been achieved. [Chinese]
In the interim between the publication and the censorship of this article, China did of course suffer devastating economic blows and systemic discontinuities due to the global pandemic, three years of inflexible domestic “zero-COVID” policies, and precipitous drops in trade, tourism, manufacturing, and other forms of economic activity. Even since COVID controls were lifted, CDT editors have noted an uptick in the censorship of frank articles and discussion about the economy, amid concerns about China’s fragile economic recovery, troubled property market, and moribund stock market. And just as Zheng Bingwen’s slightly outdated and relatively innocuous People’s Daily article was being censored, that same news outlet was publishing effusive coverage of a Politburo study session on “new productive forces” (新质生产力, xīn zhì shēngchǎnlì) and promoting a series of articles on key concepts from the Central Economic Work Conference.
In some ways, Zheng’s article was not too far off the mark. As of 2024, China is considered by the World Bank to be an upper-middle-income economy, denoting a Gross National Income (GNI) per capita of between $4,466 and $13,845 U.S. dollars. (World Bank figures for 2022 peg China’s GNI per capita at $12,850, and high-income economies are classified as having a GNI per capita of $13,846 or more.)
But it is telling that many Chinese workers of all ages have not regained their confidence in the economy, and do not feel better off than they were several years ago. As reflected in many of the Weibo comments about the People’s Daily article, a sense of disaffectedness prevails. Youth unemployment, for example, is so high that for a time, China’s National Bureau of Statistics stopped publishing statistics on it. When the statistics reappeared this month, under a puzzling new methodology, youth unemployment figures appeared to have “miraculously” improved. Young workers continue to face employment challenges, fueling bleak memes such as the impoverished scholar “Kong Yiji,” the oft-harvested “cut chives,” and the resource-exhausted “huminerals.” Such pessimism, along with social and demographic changes, has led to a falling birthrate, with many women and young couples remaining reluctant to have children, unmoved by local government incentives to encourage more births, and professing a willingness to be the “last generation,” if it comes to that. [For more background on terms such as “Kong Yiji,” “cut chives,” “huminerals,” “the last generation,” “driving in reverse,” and many more, please see our new ebook, “China Digital Times Lexicon, 20th Anniversary Edition.”]
CDT editors have selected and translated some of the Weibo comments on the re-posted (and later censored) 2016 article:
ic蜗牛也是牛：Housing’s collapsed, stocks have collapsed, but incomes have increased.
通洲探花：Does this “high-income” bracket include personal income?
Cor-Universe：Just look at this pie, getting bigger and bigger.
i我是一头猪：The good days are behind us, that’s for sure.
8带刺的5玫瑰8：If you never become middle-income, how can you get caught in a “middle-income trap”?
低调的湿滑：No matter how impoverished you are, the National Bureau of Statistics will help to overstate your income.
灌輸教育的受害者：So poverty was eradicated years ago?
史聃2020：This “high-income” thing is real, but you and I have no share in it.
6kj6a0dj0yce16p：If you can’t meet the threshold, why not just lower it? Reclassify everyone with incomes above 1000 yuan as “high-income population.”
excited404：Isn’t China currently caught in the “middle-income trap” right now?
Wngjil908981589：Eight years ago, the People’s Daily couldn’t have known that the “driving-in-reverse Emperor” would throw the car into reverse and put the pedal to the metal.
weizhao1992：This is more hilarious than CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala! [Chinese]