Between the dawn of the Roman Empire and the first factory built in the Industrial Revolution, China was one of the most powerful economies on the planet, with a gross domestic product that made up roughly 30% of the global economy.
By the 1970s, the country’s economy had regressed to a shadow of its historic self, with a per-capita income equal to one-third of sub-Saharan Africa. But over the next four decades, China’s rapid industrial transformation made it the manufacturing powerhouse of the world, and exports rapidly ballooned.
Which markets are receiving all of these exports? This graphic from Ehsan Soltani uses data from the World Trade Organization and the customs office of China to track the biggest destinations of China’s merchandise exports—defined as goods that leave the territory of a country—since the 2000s.
China’s Top Export Markets from 2001‒2022
In 2001, when China joined the World Trade Organization, the value of its merchandise exports stood at $266 billion. Over the next seven years, the country’s exports grew uninterrupted until the 2008 financial crisis caused a sharp decline in global trade.
This cycle would repeat again with consecutive growth until 2015 (another global trade slowdown), followed by slowed growth until 2020 (the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic).
But merchandise exports skyrocketed by 30% in 2021, and by the end of 2022 had grown to an estimated $3.6 trillion per year. That means China’s exports alone are bigger than the entire economies of countries like the UK, India, and France.
Which countries were receiving most of these merchandise exports? Here are China’s top export markets from 2022 and their change since 2001:
|China’s Export Market||2001||2022||Change (%)|
|Rest of the World||$48,847M||$1,294,427M||2,550%|
Despite Trump-era tariffs and a growing geopolitical rift over the last few years, the U.S. has been the biggest market for China’s exports for the last two decades. In 2022, the country received nearly $582 billion in goods from China.
Close behind, the 27 member states of the European Union rank as the second biggest market for exported Chinese goods at $562 billion. The largest individual country was the Netherlands, which accounted for $118 billion or just under 21% of Chinese merchandise exports to the EU.
Will China’s Exports Continue to Grow?
Like the broader global economy, the Chinese economy is starting to re-adjust.
For one, the country is beginning to rebalance exports from its manufacturing-heavy mix to a more even allocation of both manufacturing and services. Secondly, the economy’s overall reliance on exports has decreased significantly from its highs in the mid-2000s, with an aim to increase domestic consumption and have a more self-sufficient economy overall.
That’s not to say that Chinese dominance on the world export stage is expected to waver. With far-reaching economic policies like the One Belt, One Road initiative and the RCEP trade agreement between 15 countries in Asia and Oceania, there are plenty of future growth avenues for Chinese exports.
As the country faces an unprecedented internal demographic shift in the coming decades, perhaps China’s robust export sector will be key to continued economic growth.