Most Powerful Country? How China Compares to the U.S. in Education, Wealth and World Influence

President Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping tour the Forbidden City in Beijing on November 8, 2017. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

China welcomed Donald Trump on a "state visit-plus" on Wednesday, laying out a lavish reception to impress the U.S. president.

The first stop for Trump and first lady Melania was a visit to the Forbidden City, the seat of the ancient Chinese empire, in the heart of Beijing and a reminder to all visitors of the power China commanded in the past—and aims to wield again.

Just like Trump in the U.S. promised to "Make America Great Again," President Xi Jinping has been busy promoting the idea of an ultra-nationalist "Chinese dream." In Xi's own words, that means "realizing the great renewal of the Chinese nation."

The Economist crowned Xi "the world's most powerful man" in one of their covers last month, noting that the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party has been quietly projecting power abroad through ambitious infrastructures and investment projects and military muscle-flexing. And while Trump celebrated an "America first" policy in his inauguration speech, it was Xi that stepped up to the World Economic Forum in January to defend globalization.

International relations experts have debated for the past few decades whether the 21st century is China's time to re-emerge as the world's most powerful country. Particularly when it comes to wealth and economic power, different indicators paint contrasting pictures of which country can claim the title of world's leading economy.

Both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank rate China as having a larger gross domestic product than the U.S. based on Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), which adjusts for differences in cost of living and inflation in different countries.

Some economists, like Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, consider PPP a dubious measure of power and prefer to look at per capita level of income, a measure in which the U.S. is about four times better off than China. Despite its pursuit of a socialist economy, China also scores marginally worse than the U.S. on income inequality.

Other economists, like researchers at the Center for Economics and Business Research, think it is just a matter of time before China overtakes the U.S. as the world's leading economy by all indicators, forecasting it to happen by 2030—with India lurking right behind it.

Xi is all too aware of the work that needs doing and he has begun investing 4 percent of the country's GDP toward improving education for China's next generation when he first came to power in 2012.

The country already has the world's largest university population—a fitting achievement for the world's largest population—but the focus is not so much on improving the quantity of university graduates as much of the quality of education. Two Chinese universities now feature in the prestigious Times Higher Education World University Ranking, an index still dominated by U.S. and U.K. institutions.

Xi's long-term goals also include reducing pollution and improving environmental protection in the country that largely built its recent economic prosperity on the back of coal-powered plants.

Trump once claimed that global warming was "created by and for the Chinese" in a bid to make U.S. manufacturing less competitive, but China has felt first-hand the cost of pollution for the environment and its citizens' health. In a renewed crackdown on poisonous emissions, factories all over China have been ordered to shut down to allow for environmental inspections, as NPR reported.

As Trump has left the U.S. alone on the world stage by pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change, China—the world's top emitter of carbon dioxide emissions—has embarked on an ambitious renewable energy investment program, which is fast outpacing the U.S. in both financing and production of clean energy.

As a result, only one of the two countries can pride itself on solar farms in the shape of giant pandas.