The American Dream Is Alive. In China.



Imagine you have to make a bet.

There are two 18-year-olds, one in China, the other in the United States, both poor and short on prospects. You have to pick the one with the better chance at upward mobility.

Not long ago, the answer might have seemed simple. The “American Dream,” after all, had long promised a pathway to a better life for anyone who worked hard.

But the answer today is startling: China has risen so quickly that your chances of improving your station in life there vastly exceed those in the United States.

The richest

grew much


Incomes for

the poorest

Chinese grew

Incomes for the poorest

Americans fell

The richest in

China grew

much richer

Incomes for

the poorest

Chinese grew

Source: World Inequality Database

China is still much poorer over all than the United States. But the Chinese have taken a commanding lead in that most intangible but valuable of economic indicators: optimism.

In a country still haunted by the Cultural Revolution, where politics are tightly circumscribed by an authoritarian state, the Chinese are now among the most optimistic people in the world — much more so than Americans and Europeans, according to public opinion surveys.

Most of all, an economic expansion without precedent in modern history.

Eight hundred million people have risen out of poverty. That’s two and a half times the population of the United States.

Source: The World Bank. People in poverty live at or below $1.90 a day.

Not only are incomes drastically rising within families, but sons are outearning their fathers. That means expectations are rising, too, especially among China’s growing middle class.

Life expectancy has also soared. Chinese men born in 2013 are expected to live more than seven years longer than those born in 1990; women are expected to live nearly 10 years longer.

“It feels like there are no limits to how far you can go,” said Wu Haifeng, 37, a financial analyst who was born to a family of corn farmers in northern China and now earns more than $78,000 a year. “It feels like China will always be strong.”

China used to make up much of the world’s poor. Now it makes up much of the world’s middle class.

Source: World Inequality Database

There are risks, of course, and no guarantees that China’s rise will continue indefinitely.

A prolonged economic slump could inflict major damage. And experts warn that China could fall into the middle-income trap — in which growth and earnings plateau — if it fails to address high corporate debt levels or doesn’t do more to encourage innovation. Demography is also a ticking bomb: China is racing to get rich before it gets old.

Yet for now, the economic arc seems ever upward.

Like the United States, China still has a yawning gap between the rich and the poor — and the poorest Chinese are far poorer, with nearly 500 million people, or about 40 percent of the population, living on less than $5.50 a day, according to the World Bank.

But by some measures Chinese society has about the same level of inequality as the United States. Here are the world’s major countries ordered by inequality and income mobility.

How much a child’s

income is determined

by their parents’

Level of inequality

(Gini coefficient)

How much a child’s

income is determined

by their parents’

circles scaled

by population

Level of inequality


Today, the economic output per capita in China is $12,000, compared with $3,500 a decade ago. The number is far higher in the United States, $53,000.

Yet few analysts doubt where the bigger increases will come. Here’s how modern China’s per-capita G.D.P. growth compares so far:

Number of years since each country reached China’s per-capita G.D.P. in 1993

Number of years since each country reached China’s per-capita G.D.P. in 1993

In 2011 U.S. dollars. |Source: Maddison Project.

China’s progress is especially remarkable given how the government has used social engineering to restrict where people live and how many children they have. Loosening those constraints could accelerate income growth.

This is why many people now talk about “the Chinese Dream.”

Xu Liya, 49, once tilled wheat fields in Zhejiang, a rural province along China’s east coast. Her family ate meat only once a week, and each night she crammed into a bedroom with seven relatives.

Then she attended university on a scholarship and started a clothing store. Now she owns two cars and an apartment valued at more than $300,000. Her daughter attends college in Beijing.

“Poverty and corruption have hurt average people in China for too long,” she said. “While today’s society isn’t perfect, poor people have the resources to compete with rich people, too.”

Iris Zhao contributed research.

An earlier version of a chart on economic inequality used an older estimate of inequality in China. Based on the most recent World Bank data, economic inequality in China is roughly the same as in the United States, not slightly less.