Don't overgeneralize about 2.5 billion people

With the current economic malaise in the developed economies and the rise of the “B.R.I.C.s” you hear a lot about “China” and “India.” There is often a tacit acknowledge that China and India are large diverse nations, but nevertheless in a few paragraphs they often get reduced to some very coarse generalizations. What’s worse is when you compare China and India to nations which simply aren’t on their scale. For example, over at Brown Pundits there is sometimes talk about India vs. Bangaldesh/Pakistan/Nepal/Sri Lanka. The problem is that the appropriate comparison are specific Indian states, not the whole nation. Uttar Pradesh, the largest Indian state in population, is actually in the same range as Bangladesh and Pakistan. Similarly, when comparing social metrics in Bangaldesh vs. India, one should focus on culturally similar regions, such as the state of West Bengal, not the sum average of India as a nation.

Similarly, we look at frenetic Chinese growth and worry about how they are “leaving us behind” (from an American perspective). But do take a step back to wonder how much the Chinese are leaving the Chinese behind?

Below are two charts which show the yawning chasm within these mega-nations on the scale of states (at a finer grain the variation is even greater). First a rank order of Chinese provinces by GDP PPP, with comparable nations interspersed within. PPP values shouldn’t be taken too literally, and the Chinese data seem to overestimate the values on a province level basis by 10-15%. But you get the general picture.

If these data are correct Shanghai is equivalent to a middle income European nation. With a population of ~25 million that’s not a bad analogy. In contrast isolated Guizhou is in the range of India. Guizhou also has the highest fertility in China, at 2.2.

Now let’s look at India.

Large South Indian states like Tamil Nadu, population ~70 million, have fertility rates around those of Northern European nation-states! In contrast, the huge population states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have fertility profiles similar to Sub-Saharan Africa.

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