The China Pathfinder Project

Country/area: United States

Organisation: The Atlantic Council

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 05/10/2021

Credit: Daniel H. Rosen, Thilo Hanemann, Nargiza Salidjanova, Rachel Lietzow, Josh Lipsky, Niels Graham, Nick Harbaugh, Lauren Malkani


The Project is led by the Atlantic Council’s GeoEconomics Center and Rhodium Group with design and technical support from Seven Mile Media. The prinicpal contributers are: Daniel H. Rosen, Partner, Rhodium Group; Thilo Hanemann, Partner, Rhodium Group; Nargiza Salidjanova, Director, Rhodium Group; Rachel Lietzow, Research Analyst, Rhodium Group; Josh Lipsky, Director, Atlantic Council; Niels Graham, Assistant Director, Atlantic Council; Nick Harbaugh, Co-founder, Seven Mile Media; Lauren Malkani, Co-founder, Seven Mile Media

Project description:

China is a global economic powerhouse, but its system remains opaque. Policymakers and financial experts disagree on basic facts about what is happening inside the country. To create a shared language for understanding the Chinese economy, the China Pathfinder project scores China and ten open market economies across six key areas and presents an objective picture of China relative to the world.

Impact reached:

Designed to impact public discussion and facilitate better understanding of the implications of China’s different systemic path, China Pathfinder balances accessibility for non-technical readers with a commitment to robust, transparent, data-grounded methods. The primary audiences for the project are the United States private sector and policy makers, as well as government officials in other open-market economies. China Pathfinder was successfully launched in October 2021 with a special address given by OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann. The launch received widespread media attention and generated articles from Politico, the South China Morning Post, and more than 100 other news organizations discussing the project’s research and findings. The US policy community has also expressed strong interest in the project; the China Pathfinder team briefed the Department of State, Department of Treasury, and individual members of both the House and the Senate. 

Techniques/technologies used:

China Pathfinder was built using an innovative combination of Svelte.js, D3.js and the WordPress CMS. The cutting edge Svelte JS framework allowed the application to be truly reactive, providing real time user feedback and instant interactions and page transitions without the need for a full page reload. Svelte also gave us the flexibility to develop the interactive using an agile approach, drastically reducing development time for changes in the code and allowing us to respond quickly as new algorithms for the economic projections were produced.
Since the data behind the interactive was unique and original, we used the D3.js library to create the visualizations from the ground up, giving us the ability to tailor our graphics to the needs of the data rather than shoehorning the data into an existing chart template. The data-driven lines on the main home page graphic were coded from a custom bezier curve algorithm, allowing the user to instantly see patterns in the economies of the countries displayed.

The WordPress CMS gives the administrators complete control over all aspects of the website including content, page design and data. Each visualization is driven by a CSV file uploaded to a custom field on the WordPress backend, allowing the data to evolve over time without having to touch a line of code.

What was the hardest part of this project?

One of the primary, but most challenging, goals of the China Pathfinder project was to create a data driven assessment of China and 10 open market economies that both Chinese and western audiences and policy makers could find satisfactory. In doing so we wanted to challenge the assumption that data on the Chinese economy was either too opaque or dubious to make rigorous comparison against open market economies. To solve this the pathfinder team engage in intensive research as well as consultations with senior experts across the private sector, US and Foreign Governments, academia, and international organizations such as the IMF to ensure a rigorous and accurate selection of data. The result is a project that draws on a wide range of quantitative resources which allow the team to examine China’s progress across six clusters representing the “domestic” (financial system development; market competition; and modern innovation system) and the “external” openness dimensions (trade openness; direct investment openness; and portfolio investment openness). Based on internal research and expertise as well as external consultations, the project carefully selects a set of annual indicators appropriate for conducting cross-country comparisons in each cluster. Supplemental indicators tracking China-specific data and higher-frequency aspects of China’s economy add nuance to the analysis.

What can others learn from this project?

China’s share of the world’s economy quadrupled over the last two decades, from just 4 percent to over 17 percent. It is now so intertwined with the interests of other global actors that few strategic, political, or business decisions can be made without considering China’s trajectory. Yet even experts within the China circle disagree about where its economic system stands, where it is headed, or what that means for the world. In recent years, the heated rhetoric around China and its economic ambitions has begun to follow an eerily familiar and dangerous pattern. Mutual trust between the world’s two largest economies has completely eroded, with one side, the United States, believing it is being taken advantage of while the other, China, convinced it is unfairly maligned for doing what any other nation would do. While both claims are rooted in some truth, over time, the arguments have become detached from data-driven reality. A fact-based assessment of this dynamic is essential in order to prevent excessive tensions between China and other nations, and properly evaluate where coordinated and purposeful cooperation among open market economies may be justified and needed. The China Pathfinder project begins to solve this by providing essential, data-driven guidance to journalists as well as the public and private sector to allow them to accurately and rigorously assess claims about the Chinese economy with relevant and easily accessible data. 

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