A widely distributed China Briefing map shows per capita GDP gains by province* for 2011. As can be seen, all parts of China experienced rapid economic expansion in that year, but the more prosperous and productive coastal zone did not fare as well as many interior areas. The mineral-driven boom in Inner Mongolia is well known, but the rapid recent growth experienced in such provinces as Sichuan and Guizhou has not received as much attention in the international press. As several of these rapidly expanding areas are quite poor by Chinese standards —with Guizhou having China’s lowest per capita GDP—such patterns indicate a slight lessening of the country’s stark regional disparities.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether such patterns will persist. When examined over the past several decades, a strikingly different map of regional development emerges. To illustrate such differences, I have made several maps of the relative economic standing of Chinese provinces, using Wikipedia data. The first map shows per capita GDP ranking in 2010. Here blue provinces have higher than average figures and red provinces lower than average figures, with the two richest areas (Shanghai and Beijing) shown in dark blue, the third and fourth richest is a somewhat lighter shade of blue, and so on. On this map, the economic development of the coastal zone is clearly evident, as is the low economic productivity of the greater southwest.
The second map portrays the country in the same manner for 1978, just as China’s economic transformation was beginning. (Note that 29 rather 31 entities are mapped here, as at the time Chongqing was part of Sichuan, whereas data for Hainan were not tabulated). The economic pattern at the time was strikingly different from that of 2010; in the late 1970s, the northeast (Manchuria) was the clear economic leader, while much of the far west, including the entire Tibetan Plateau, ranked at a relatively high level.
The final map shows changes in relative rankings over the same period. Three province-level municipalities, Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin, remained the same, occupying the top three positions in both years. Xinjiang in the northwest also retained the same ranking, remaining in position number 19. Other regions show significant changes. The coast surged ahead, particularly Fujian, Zhejiang, and Shandong, as did mineral-rich Inner Mongolia. The rust-belt zone of Manchuria, on the other hand, dropped significantly. An even greater drop, however, is seen in the Tibetan Plateau (Tibet proper and Qinghai) and the adjoining province of Gansu. Tibet itself dropped from the 9th position to the 28th.
*Strictly speaking, the units in question are province-level administrative divisions, including autonomous regions and direct-controlled municipalities. China’s Special Administrative Regions (Hong Kong and Macau) are not included.