'China years' show quick-time changes

Standing in Exchange Square staring up at the glittering Two IFC tower, a visiting New Zealand business executive observed yesterday, 'Hong Kong wasn't like this the last time I was here.'

That was in 1986. On his return here this week, the visitor had tried to find his way around the city by looking out for well-remembered landmarks like the Tamar basin and the Star Ferry pier. Of course, within minutes he was hopelessly lost. 'Things change more slowly where I live,' he mused.

He was right. In fact, leisurely New Zealand moves at less than one-third of Hong Kong's hurried pace, according to a piece of research just published by Standard Chartered.

This intriguing study is an attempt to capture and portray the dizzying speed at which the Chinese economy is changing, by comparing it with rates of change elsewhere in the world. In it, Standard Chartered's Shanghai-based economist Stephen Green introduces the concept of 'China years'.

Time measured in China years expresses how long it takes the mainland to change as much as another country changes in 12 months. For example, things move pretty quickly in Hong Kong, but not as quickly as they do on the mainland. According to Mr Green's calculations, China changes at twice the speed of Hong Kong, so 12 months in Hong Kong equals just half a China year. In other words, it takes China six months to experience the changes that Hong Kong sees in a year. Just think: on the mainland, the Queen's Pier demolition would have been wrapped up before lunch, instead of taking all day.

To calculate his China years, Mr Green worked out the average annual growth rates for gross domestic product per capita (in constant local currency prices) across 60 countries for the period from 1980 to 2007. The results told him the speed of growth of the average person's income for each country, which he then compared with the figure for China as a proxy for the relative rate of change.


Some of the results are surprising. In the chart below we show how long it takes different countries to go through the amount of change China sees in a single year.

It is no shock to find out that China's neighbours are moving relatively rapidly, with Korea taking 18 months to see as much change as China does in one year, and Taiwan only a little longer.

Few would have guessed, however, that tradition-bound Britain is changing more quickly than the go-ahead United States. Meanwhile, many countries in the developing world turn out hardly to be developing at all. It takes the Philippines 12 years to go though as much change as China does in a single year. Highly-vaunted Brazil takes 15 years, oil-rich Nigeria 30 years, and poor old Malawi a glacial 1,200 years.

Mr Green is well aware of the limitations of his technique. For example, it does not allow for the cyclical changes of successive booms and busts. Nevertheless it gives a startling illustration of just how fast China is changing, and provides a telling reminder of the attractions of places like New Zealand where the pace of life is gentler.