China’s population is declining – and nothing can change that

More than 60 years ago, something rare happened in China: more people Died than he was born.

This estimated one-year population decline was due to the Great Famine, possibly The worst man-made disaster in historywhich led to the death of as up to 45 million people. Together with a Short but sharp decline in the birth rateChina shrank by nearly 700,000 people between 1960 and 1961. Once Chinese leader Mao abandoned the forced industrialization policies that led to the Great Famine, China’s fertility rate rebounded rapidly and mortality declined, and today More than twice the number of Chinese Alive as he was in 1961.

but now, For the first time since that year, China’s population is shrinking again. And this time, he’s unlikely to recover — not soon, maybe not ever. On Tuesday, the Chinese government mentioned That 9.56 million people were born in China last year, while 10.41 million people died. You don’t have to be a demographer to know what that means – all you have to do is subtract.

China He may have already lost Its position as the world’s most populous country relative to India continues to rise. While Covid played some role in these numbers – though it’s hard to say, given Beijing Lack of transparency About the full toll of the epidemic – this wasn’t like the early ’60s. China’s population decline is not the result of a single severe crisis, but years of political decisions and cultural and economic transformations that have led this nation of 1.4 billion to what it is today: facing an aging and shrinking population for the foreseeable future.

This is not to say that China as a country or as a world power is trapped in an irreversible decline. What is happening in China is happening at varying speeds in most countries, as the world – with the exception of still very young regions such as sub-Saharan Africa – completes the transition from high to low fertility rates, two-thirds of the planet Living in nations that do not have enough children to replace their own population through procreation alone.

Many of these demographic forces are positive, as a result of economic growth that has given people, especially women, the freedom to live the life they want, including one with fewer or even no children. But that means — as with Wang Feng, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine who specializes in Chinese demographics, Tell The New York Times – “In the long term, we will see a China the likes of which the world has not seen before.”

Inasmuch as China’s aging and eventual shrinking was a demographic imperative as it became richer and more modern, the particular speed with which this transformation is taking place, and the particular challenges that will emerge at this pace, are the work of Beijing itself.

Demographic regret

In 2015, the Chinese government did something it almost never does: admit it made a mistake, at least tacitly.

ruling communist party announce that it ended its historic and enforced one-child policy, allowing all married couples to have up to two children.

The one-child policy helped to be the source of all the demographic dividends, which is the term for economic strengthening created when Birth and death rates in the country are declining. Between 1980 and 2015, the working-age population in China It grew from 594 million to just over 1 billion. China’s dependency ratio — the total population of young and old relative to the working-age population — has fallen from more than 68 percent in 1980 to less than 38 percent in 2015, Which means more workers for every person who doesn’t work.

Giant billboards erected across China – such as the one seen in Beijing in 1983 – encouraged Chinese couples to have just one child in a modernization drive to limit China’s population to 1.2 billion people by the year 2000.
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Having more young workers with fewer young or elderly dependents to take care of was the key Fuel in China’s economic rocket engine. But no fuel burns forever, and over the past decade, Hundreds of millions Chinese have reached retirement age, with declining numbers of young men to replace them. So Logos gone From “Having only one child is fine” to “One is too little, while two is right.”

How did the Chinese people react? Not by having more children. By 2021, China’s total fertility rate (that is, the number of births expected per woman over her reproductive life) It dropped to just 1.15, nearly a full-fledged child is less than the replacement rate of 2.1. (That’s two to replace each parent, plus a slight extra to compensate for children who might die before they reach adulthood – the demographics are dismal science.) For the people of China, if not the government, they seem to have been Not Just right.

Total births in China have now fallen for six consecutive years, the United Nations’ Find midstream projections that by the end of the century, the country’s total population would fall below 800 million people, a level that was not Since the late 1960s. Unlike back then, when it was the average Chinese High productivity in the early twentiesthat a smaller China would be much older.

This is not a bad thing on its face – population aging is not only a consequence of fewer children, but also of people Survival and childhood rates are higher And they live longer. (Life expectancy has increased in China out of shock 33 yearss in 1960 to ’78 today – higher, in fact, than The richest United States.) But with fewer young workers and more elderly dependents, it will be much more difficult to keep China’s economic engine thriving. China’s economic growth in the last three months of the year It fell to only 2.9 percenta record low since Mao’s death in 1976. This was largely the double whammy of months of Covid lockdowns followed by widespread outbreaks when those restrictions were suddenly lifted, but it also heralds a broader and longer-term slowdown.

Why is China’s aging challenge so serious

Almost every developed country, including largely the United States, will need to grapple with the effects of an aging population, but China faces particular challenges.

For all her power and total wealth – through Most accounts for the second largest economy in the world On a per capita basis, still A middle-income country at best. Reaching anything like per capita parity with a country like the United Kingdom, let alone the United States, will require many more years of strong economic growth that will be increasingly difficult to achieve in an aging nation. In the end, China can Grow up before he gets rich.

And if China can’t grow faster, the elderly will bear the brunt of the cost. A 2013 study estimated that nearly a quarter of the elderly in China live below the poverty lineand the country — like many others in East Asia, including wealthier ones like Japan and South Korea — has A little bit in the way of aging support. This was less of a problem when the elderly could count on caring for their children, but decades of the one-child policy have left an inverted pyramid Known as “4-2-1”, With four grandparents and two parents relying on one child.

A five-year-old girl to her grandfather, who came to pick her up at Kunming Changshui International Airport in southwest China’s Yunnan Province on January 15, as families travel to be with loved ones amidst the Spring Festival travel rush.
Jiang Wenyao/Xinhua via Getty Images

More and more Chinese young people also choose it Go completely childless – Leading a ‘dual income, childless’ lifestyle – more and more Chinese seniors will have no family support at all, finds one survey Projection 79 million childless elderly in China by 2050. These trends will reinforce each other – Younger Chinese They are already martyred Burden of caring for elderly parents as one reason for having few or no children.

It is worth repeating that this situation was, for the most part, inevitable. Fertility transition – the sharp decline in fertility as countries get richer – is akin to an iron law like demography. There is no predictable situation in which China can develop as if Fertility rates in the mid-60s Six to seven children per woman, and most of this decline has been attributed to improvements in infant mortality that have given parents confidence that their children will live to adulthood.

But while the final destination of the demographic transition may largely be determined, how quickly it gets there matters a great deal — and the years of the one-child policy, past the point where it makes economic or demographic sense, have hurt China’s ability to do so. manage this transition.

More than a little

Besides ending the one-child policy, the Chinese government has begun offering financial incentives to couples to have more children, Follow in my footsteps of other countries that faced a demographic deficit.

Shanghai I will give Mothers get 60 days of additional parental leave, while Shenzhen joined other Chinese cities in offering benefits — $1,476 in her case — to couples with a third child. But don’t expect these moves To make a huge difference in birth rates. While these financial incentives may lead couples to have a baby earlier than they planned, there are Little evidence Programs can convince childless couples to have a baby, or permanently increase birth rates.

Instead, China will need to focus on increasing worker productivity and the benefits of automation, while improving its social safety net, in order to manage its demographic transition as smoothly as possible. It won’t be easy – while it is rapidly advancing in artificial intelligence and its manufacturing know-how is first-rate, one of China’s biggest advantages remains its large pool of young workers. However, this pool is drying up, while the country lacks the resources of already old neighbors like Japan that could help support its growing elderly population.

But the worst outcome may be if the authoritarian government in China tries to force Its citizens are having more children with the same heavy hand it once used to stop them from doing so. Previously, increasing discrimination China is being framed against LGBTQ citizens as a response to the country A supposed demographic crisis.

A better future will be one in which Beijing does everything it can to support the demographic choices its citizens want to make — and in doing so, provides a more solid foundation for those Chinese who actively want to have more children. That will take a lot of work. The rising costs of starting a family, Darwinian competition for educational resources and jobs, and The lingering effects of years of ruthless COVID-19 crackdowns have left China’s youth at risk state of existential crisis. As a young Shanghai protester Tell Coronavirus workers in a video that went viral last year, “We are the last generation.” It is up to the Chinese government to ensure that this is not the case.

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