Despite their value, coastal ecosystems are globally threatened by anthropogenic impacts, yet how these impacts are driven by economic development is not well understood. We compiled a multifaceted dataset to quantify coastal trends and examine the role of economic growth in China’s coastal degradation since the 1950s. Although China’s coastal population growth did not change following the 1978 economic reforms, its coastal economy increased by orders of magnitude. All 15 coastal human impacts examined increased over time, especially after the reforms. Econometric analysis revealed positive relationships between most impacts and GDP across temporal and spatial scales, often lacking dropping thresholds. These relationships generally held when influences of population growth were addressed by analyzing per capita impacts, and when population density was included as explanatory variables. Historical trends in physical and biotic indicators showed that China’s coastal ecosystems changed little or slowly between the 1950s and 1978, but have degraded at accelerated rates since 1978. Thus economic growth has been the cause of accelerating human damage to China’s coastal ecosystems. China’s GDP per capita remains very low. Without strict conservation efforts, continuing economic growth will further degrade China’s coastal ecosystems.