By Feng Zhaokui
It will take years before the populous nation industrializes its vast rural areas and efficiently makes use of energy resources
China's gross domestic product (GDP) touched $4,909 billion last year, according to the country's National Bureau of Statistics. Yet, it is still $160 billion less than Japan's $5,073 billion, as indicated by data from Tokyo.
Given its marvelous economic growth in the past few years, the $160 billion gap will soon be plugged by the world's third largest economy. China is expected to overtake Japan as the world's second largest economy this year if it manages to carry forward its past momentum.
Since the start of the 21st century, China's economic might has successively surpassed that of several developed nations such as Canada, Italy, France, Britain and Germany.
The country's growing economic clout on the world stage, along with the sterling economic growth shown by some of its big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and other eastern coastal regions, has raised a question: Is China a developing or developed nation?
Any trivial matter multiplied by 1.3 billion will turn into a big problem, and any astronomical figure divided by 1.3 billion will be reduced to a tiny number, as Premier Wen Jiabao put it during a press conference at the conclusion of this year's National People's Congress session.
As a country with a population of 1.37 billion, there are few reasons to take pride in the fact that our country's economic bulk has surpassed those countries with populations or land areas much smaller than ours.
Canada has only 2.5 percent of China's population. The proportion is 4.4 percent, 4.6 percent, 4.6 percent, 6.2 percent and 9.5 percent respectively for Italy, France, Britain, Germany and Japan.
China's huge economic aggregate has not changed the fact that its per capita GDP still ranks very low globally. In 2008, the country's per capita GDP was $3,263, which ranked it 98th in the world.
That figure was a little more than one-third of the world's average the same year, which was $9,054. The number was also much less than some other developing countries, such as Brazil and Mexico.
In 1990, the United Nations Development Program conceived the Human Development Index (HDI) as a way to measure the economic and social development of member states.
As a comparative measurement of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living for countries worldwide, the HDI is more preferentially used to distinguish whether the country is a developed, a developing or an under-developed country, and it measures the impact of a country's economic policies on its citizens' quality of life.
According to the 2007 HDI, 182 listed countries were divided into four categories in their human development: the very high, high, medium and low level.
Countries falling in the first category, which stands above 0.9, are referred to as developed countries, and the last three are all grouped in the developing countries' list.
Last year's HDI indicates that China was 0.772, ranking 92nd among all the 182 nations, which also put the country at a medium level among developing nations.
For the US and Japan, the world's largest and second largest economies, the index was 0.956 and 0.960, ranking them 13th and 10th in the world, respectively, in terms of human development.
The reason why developed countries are also branded as "industrialized developed ones" is that they completed their stages of industrialization much earlier. Despite its fast economic development in the past decades, China is still on the road to industrialization and its economic quality has yet to improve.
The country heavily depends on imports for high-performance material, core parts and major heavy equipment purchases.
Compared with developed countries, China is still at a disadvantage in technological innovations and the "Made-in-China" brand is at the low end of the world's industrial chain given that skilled labor is in short supply.
Among China's manufacturing industry, foreign-funded ventures take up a large portion, and the labor-intensive and middle and low-end high-tech products exported by these ventures have contributed much to its surging export.
Statistics show that exports by China-based foreign manufacturers last year were at $6,722 billion, 56 percent of the country's total and 0.7 percentage points higher than the previous year.
China's ongoing industrialization has been achieved to a large extent by excessive consumption of limited natural resources and environmental degeneration.
According to the International Energy Agency, the country consumed 0.82 ton of standard oil for every $1,000 increase in GDP value in 2007, in contrast to the world average of 0.30 ton of standard oil for the same metric. In the US and Japan, the figure was 0.20 ton and 0.10 ton respectively.
The extensive economic growth and industrialization have pushed China's fast-growing economy to the verge of resource exhaustion and environmental degradation.
Whether or not China can transform its high-energy and high-pollutant industrialization to a resources-conservative and environment-friendly model is the key to whether it can succeed in pushing forward the process.
The dazzling opening ceremony of the Shanghai Expo, as well as the grand and expensively decorated China pavilion, have not changed the basic fact that many of the country's inland regions are still economically underdeveloped.
A harmonious, sustainable ecological environment has increasingly become an important metric of a country's development level.
It is in this regard that China has to travel a long distance before catching up with developed nations.
The author is a researcher at the Institute of Japanese Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.