© 2018 The Author(s). Published by IOP Publishing Ltd. Exposure and vulnerability are the main contributing factors of growing impact from climate-related disasters globally. Understanding the spatiotemporal dynamic patterns of vulnerability is important for designing effective disaster risk mitigation and adaptation measures. At national scale, most cross-country studies have suggested that economic vulnerability to disasters decreases as income increases, especially for developing countries. Research covering sub-national climate-related natural disasters is indispensable to obtaining a comprehensive understanding of the effect of regional economic growth on vulnerability reduction. Taking China as a case, this subnational scale study shows that economic development is correlated with the significant reduction in human fatalities but increase in direct economic losses (DELs) from climate-related disasters since 1949. The long-term trend in climate-related disaster vulnerability, reflected by mortality (1978-2015) and DELs (1990-2015) as a share of the total population and Gross Domestic Product, has seen significant decline among all economic regions in China. While notable differences remain among its West, Central and East economic regions, the temporal vulnerability change has been converging. The study further demonstrated that economic development level is correlated with human and economic vulnerability to climate-related disasters, and this vulnerability decreased with the increase of per-capita income. This study suggested that economic development can have nuanced effects on overall human and economic vulnerability to climate-related disasters. We argue that climate change science needs to acknowledge and examine the different pathways of vulnerability effects related to economic development.