The fact that China’s population is shrinking for the first time in decades is not just symbolically significant, writes Feng Wang, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine. This trend could have important economic, social and political consequences.
For much of its history, China boasted of having the largest population in the world. Until recently, it was even remotely.
That China’s population is shrinking now, and will even be overtaken by India later this year, is therefore big news, even though it’s been written in the stars for some time.
As a researcher on Chinese demographics, I know that the figures released by the Chinese government this week, which show deaths have exceeded births for the first time in six decades, are not just news, but an important development. .
Because the previous “shrinkage year” of 1961 was an anomaly, due to the economic debacle of the Great Leap Forward, when an estimated 30 million people starved to death. But the numbers for 2022 are completely different and represent a real tipping point.
This is the start of what is likely to be a long term trend. By the end of this century, China’s population is expected to decline by 45%. And this estimate assumes a stable Chinese fertility rate of 1.3 children per couple, which will not necessarily remain the case.
The falling numbers are fueling a trend that has been worrying demographers for some time: that of a rapidly aging society. By 2040, about a quarter of China’s population will be over 65.
In short: it is a seismic change of proportions. It will have both tangible and symbolic impact on China in three areas.
Over the past 40 years, China has undergone a historic transformation from a rural economy to a thriving manufacturing and service industry. This has been accompanied by an increase in quality of life and income.
But the Chinese government has long understood that the country cannot rely solely on the labour-intensive growth model of the past. Technological innovation and competition from countries with cheaper labor, such as Vietnam and India, have eroded this old pattern.
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This historic tipping point in China’s demographic evolution is a new wake-up call that the country needs to move faster from a production model to a post-industrial economy.
What does this mean for China and the world? Beijing’s aging and shrinking population will certainly present both short-term and long-term challenges. In short, this means on the one hand that there will be less labor to fuel the economy and stimulate economic growth, and on the other hand a growing group of elderly people who may need a costly support.
It is perhaps no coincidence that 2022 was not only a demographic turning point, but also the country’s worst economic performance since 1976.
The aging of the Chinese population is more than an economic issue, it will also profoundly change Chinese society. Many elderly people have only one descendant due to the one-child policy that lasted more than three decades and was only relaxed in 2016.
A growing number of people will not be able to support a single older child and will need financial, emotional and social support.
It will also increase the pressure on their children, who will have to combine the care of their parents with the efforts for their career and the care of their own children.
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It is the responsibility of the Chinese government to provide adequate health care and pensions. But unlike Western democracies, which have had decades to build a safety net, Beijing is struggling to keep pace with demographic and economic changes.
When China’s economy began to boom in the early 2000s, the Chinese government invested heavily in education and health care and expanded pension coverage. But demographic changes are so rapid that politics always lags behind. Even after large-scale expansion, the health system remains highly inefficient, unevenly distributed, and insufficient to meet large and growing needs. The social pension system is also highly segmented and disproportionately distributed.
How the Chinese government responds to the challenges of these dramatic demographic changes will be crucial. Failing to meet popular expectations could spell crisis for the Chinese Communist Party, whose fate is closely tied to economic growth. Any economic contraction could have serious consequences for the party. It will also be judged on the extent to which the state can fix the welfare system.
There are already strong arguments that the Chinese government has reacted too slowly. In particular, the one-child policy, which has played a significant role in slowing — and now reversing — population growth, has been government policy for more than three decades. It had been known since the 1990s that China’s fertility rate was too low to sustain its current population. But it wasn’t until 2016 that Beijing stepped in, relaxed the policy and allowed couples to have a second child and, in 2021, a third child.
These decisions to boost population growth – or at least slow the decline – came too late to prevent China from losing its crown as the world’s largest population. The loss of prestige is one thing, but the political impact of any economic hardship caused by this contraction is another.