Risks & Trends

'China: Getting Old Before Getting Rich'

Foreign Affairs

Nicholas Eberstadt | American Enterprise Institute
'China: Getting Old Before Getting Rich'
'China: Getting Old Before Getting Rich'
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China's demographic challenges

4

May 27, 2021
BIG IDEA | ‘Over the past two generations, China has seen a collapse in fertility, exacerbated by Beijing’s ruthless population-control programs.’
‘With decades of extremely low fertility in its immediate past, decades more of that to come, and no likelihood of mass immigration, China will see its population peak by 2027.’

‘China’s growth since the 1970s is usually attributed to the policies of Deng Xiaoping, who pushed the country in a more market-friendly direction after becoming the paramount leader in 1978.’

  • ‘But demographics also played a critical role.’

‘Over the past two generations, China has seen a collapse in fertility, exacerbated by Beijing’s ruthless population-control programs.’

  • ‘The one-child policy, introduced in 1979, was ended in 2015, but the damage had already been done.’
  • ‘China’s total fertility rate (TFR) has been below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman since at least the early 1990s.’

‘With decades of extremely low fertility in its immediate past, decades more of that to come, and no likelihood of mass immigration, China will see its population peak by 2027.’

  • ‘Its working-age population has already been shrinking for the past five years, and it is set to decrease by at least 100 million between 2015 and 2040.’
  • ‘The country will see a particularly large decline in its working-age population under 30, which may plunge by nearly 30 percent over these years.’

‘Although this rising generation will be the best educated in Chinese history, the country’s overall growth in educational attainment will slow as the less educated older generations come to make up a larger and larger share of the total population.’

  • ‘The Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital estimates that by 2040, China’s adult population will have fewer average years of schooling than that of Bolivia or Zimbabwe.’

‘As China’s working population slumps, its over-65 population is set to explode.’

  • ‘By 2040, China could have twice as many elderly people as children under the age of 15, and the median age of China’s population could rise to 48, up from 37 in 2015 and less than 25 in 1990.’
  • ‘No country has ever gone gray at a faster pace.’
  • ‘On the whole, China’s elderly in 2040 will be both poor and poorly educated, dependent on others for the overwhelming majority of their consumption and other needs.’

‘Under the one-child policy, for instance, Chinese parents often opted for an abortion over giving birth to a girl, creating one of the most imbalanced infant and child sex ratios in the modern world.’

  • ‘In the years ahead, China will have to deal with the problem of tens of millions of surplus men, mostly from disadvantaged rural backgrounds, with no prospects of marrying, having children, or continuing their family line.’

‘China will also face a related problem over the next generation, as traditional Chinese family structures atrophy or evaporate. Since the beginning of written history, Chinese society has relied on extended kinship networks to cope with economic risks.’

  • ‘Yet a rising generation of urban Chinese youth is made up of only children of only children, young men and women with no siblings, cousins, aunts, or uncles.’
  • ‘The end of 2,500 years of family tradition will be a departure into the unknown for Chinese civilization—and Beijing is manifestly unprepared for this impending great leap.’

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