Throughout my lifetime, China has been the most populous country in the world. But India has nearly caught up, and should overtake China in the next couple of years.
Here's a figure of population totals for the two countries. Back in 1970, China's population was 818 million, while India's was 553 million. By 2000, the gap had narrowed to "only" 150 million or so, with China's population of 1,262 million and India's of 1,053 million. By 2016, the gap was down to about 60 million, with 1,378 million in China and 1,324 million in India.
Population growth rates have slowed substantially in both China and India, but India's population growth rate has been higher since the mid-1970s (after China adopted an extremely aggressive family planning program in the early 1970s). The population growth rates have converged somewhat, but India's annual rate of population growth remains about 0.5% per year higher, so it closes the population gap by about 6-7 million people each year. In about a decade, India's total population will overtake that of China.
The total population figures mask another difference: China is aging much more rapidly than India. For example, here's a figure showing the "age dependency" ratio, which is calculated as the number of elderly divided by the working population. Thus, in China the age-dependency ratio has already reached 14% and is rising sharply, while in India it is at 8% and rising more slowly.
As the saying goes, China seems likely to face the problem of getting old without first having become rich. For India, the key question is how to help its large and growing working-age population be economically productive, before India's age-dependency ratio rises, too.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.