On a Per-Capita Basis, China's GDP = U.S. in 1878
There have been reports lately like this one that predict that the U.S. will be the third largest economy by 2050, after falling behind China's GDP in 2020 and India's by 2050. But of course one of the main reasons for the rise in economic output for China and India will be because their populations are so much larger than the U.S. (China: 1.3 billion and India: 1.15 billion). The chart above shows real GDP on a per capita basis for the U.S. from 1800 to 1880 (data from Global Financial Data), and for China from 1969 to 2010.
Bottom Line: While China's exponential economic growth over the last 40 years is pretty impressive, from wretched, abject poverty and only $128 of per capita real GDP in 1969, to per-capita output of $2,800 in 2010, China's economic output on a per capita basis is still about the same as the U.S. in 1878 ($2,800), 132 years ago.