The last time China’s population contracted, its citizens were lucky if they could find grass to eat. It was the early Sixties, and Mao’s disastrous and ridiculously named Great Leap Forward had left millions in abject poverty. China is infinitely more prosperous now. So, what lies behind yesterday’s news that, for the first time in 60 years, its population is falling?
This development is not exactly a surprise, but it has arrived sooner than expected. Overwhelmingly to blame is the plummeting birth rate — something that, you may point out, the Chinese state would once have celebrated. The nation’s One-Child Policy is the stuff of Geography textbooks everywhere. Whereas the Communist lunacy of the Great Leap Forward was relatively easy to reverse, the One-Child Policy — which cruelly persecuted and hounded people who wanted to have two children, never mind three — casts a long shadow.
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But to blame it for China’s current demographic crisis is too easy. Egregious though the One-Child Policy was, it is not at the root of the nation’s current problems; it merely brought them on earlier than would otherwise have been the case. In the Seventies, before the policy was introduced, China’s fertility rate fell precipitously, halving from around six to around three children per woman in the course of a decade. It would have continued to nose-dive even without intervention.
The underlying reason for the lack of births in China is fairly obvious. The nation has developed. And urban, wealthy, educated people do not have large families — often choosing not to have children at all. Economic and cultural factors may differ a little between nations, but this is pretty much true the world over. It’s intriguing, then, that young Chinese people blame a lack of prosperity for their reluctance to have children; the Guardian reports one Weibo user posting, “Now who dares to have children, housing prices are so expensive.”
What has really changed is not economics, but expectations. When prosperous professionals have a sixth of the offspring their penurious peasant grandparents produced, lack of funds cannot be the ultimate explanation. The issue here is not material well-being; it is the matter of how one’s affluence compares to what one’s peers are experiencing. In days of old, people had large families in hovels not knowing where the next meal would come from. Today, quite understandably, the new normal is to want a decent home and a degree of financial security.
The consequences of this demographic shift are already showing, with Chinese factories already reporting a shortage of labour. But we haven’t seen anything yet. The workforce is in free fall. Back in the mid-Eighties, four or five people entered it for everyone who reached retirement age, but the two groups are now roughly equal. Rust-belt cities are losing their life. Regions like Dongbei, once the beating heart of Maoist industrialisation, are now shadows of their former selves. The ballooning number of elderly rely on thinly-stretched single children to look after them — offspring of the One-Child Policy who have no siblings with whom to share the burden. One typical young adult, trying to juggle caring for her parents and working full-time (so that she can pay their medical bills), laments: “It’s a real struggle. Sometimes I just want to quit my job, but now I need the money more than ever.” In just a few decades, there will likely be two people in their early sixties for every person in their early twenties.
The median citizen of the People’s Republic is already in his or her late thirties — similar to the median American and only slightly younger than the median Brit. But while America and the UK will age only moderately, in a generation or two the average Chinese person will be pushing 50. An ageing China might be relatively peaceable and crime-free, but it will lack the dynamism which has vaulted the country up the economic and political ranks over the past 40 years. The crisis is bad enough for Xi Jingping to have vowed to implement policies to boost the birth rate, in an effort to reverse national ageing.
China is the world’s great population behemoth: what happens to the nation’s demography has significant ramifications for the rest of the world. As Charles Goodhart and Manoj Pradhan pointed out in their book, The Great Demographic Reversal, the tremendous flow of subsistence peasants into the factories of China’s coastal plain not only fuelled the country’s stratospheric economic growth but also provided the developed world with a vast pool of cheap labour. Manufacturing transitioned out of Europe and North America to the PRC, where there was an endless supply of cheap labour. Now this era has ended. As this vast labour reservoir dries up, expect to pay more for everything from toys to tablets.
What can be done? Wealthy Western countries can choose to plug a shortage of workers with immigration, but this is not an option for China — for three reasons. First, as a middle-income country it is relatively unattractive to those seeking brighter lights and pavements paved, if not with gold, then at least with tarmac. Second, China is geographically and culturally distant from the parts of the world whose population is still booming, namely sub-Saharan Africa, where French and English are widely spoken, and Paris and London are easier to reach. And third, whereas a country like the UK can meaningfully top up its population with immigrants to ameliorate pinch-points in the labour market, China, with a population more than 20 times ours, would have to hoover up hundreds of millions to make much of a difference.
China’s demographic decline will impact geopolitics as well as world economics. True, the nation will still have plenty of young men to fill its army’s ranks, but as it ages its politicians may be less inclined to lose them. Parents who have been forced by the Party to have only one child — and who have traditionally valued sons above daughters — will be doubly reluctant to lose them. In Russia in the Eighties, mothers received coffins containing the bodies of their sons who had died in Afghanistan; their protests have been evoked in the nation’s most recent war. Although worries about maternal discontent were not enough to stop Putin invading Ukraine, the precedent may give Xi Jinping pause for thought before he sets out on any military adventures.
And more significantly, there is a country jostling to fill the void that China will leave at the top of the world’s population ranks — a country that has not, historically, been the PRC’s friend. The global balance of power will of course be shifted by the fact that, for the first time in thousands of years, China is about to be eclipsed as the world’s most populous nation by India. India has a very long way to go before its economy catches up with China, but its demography means that it is almost certain to be the faster growing of the two economies over the next 20 years or so.
India has not suffered such absurd policies as China; when vasectomies were forced on men in the Seventies, there was a furious backlash and the policy was dropped. Though the Indian government has long encouraged smaller families — “Ham Do Hamara Do” (“We Two and Our Two”) was the slogan of the day when I first visited in the Eighties — population control has been more persuasive than coercive. Development has also been slower: less urbanisation, less education, less prosperity. It is no surprise, therefore, that India’s fertility rate has been coming down more slowly than China’s.
But it has been coming down nonetheless, from about six children per woman in the mid-Sixties, to just over two today. Still, the population can sustain itself — and besides, India has years of “demographic momentum” ahead of it: the population will continue to grow simply by dint of the large number of young people starting families, even if those families are fairly small, compared to the small number of older people dying. India can look forward to a couple of decades in which it can reap the so-called demographic dividend, with plenty of young people entering the workforce, relatively few leaving it, and the new workers not burdened by a surfeit of children. These are the circumstances which coincided with fantastic economic booms in places like Korea, in the Seventies, and Indonesia, in more recent times.
Scratch beneath the surface of the national data in India, however, and all is not well. Fertility is still high in the north’s poor Hindi belt, in places such as Uttar Pradesh (which has a population three times that of Britain’s) and Bihar. In those Indian states where the economy is flourishing, however, like Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, the average woman has a similar number of children to women in the UK. In West Bengal, fertility is closer to the level of Japan. As India plunges headlong into greater prosperity, it is rapidly losing its demographic edge. Indeed, India’s demographic crisis, though a few decades behind China’s, appears to be just as extreme; the first whiff of escaping dire poverty and birth rate seems to collapse. It looks as if India, for reasons that are hard to pin down, having reached replacement level fertility, is going to swiftly plunge below it. Countries such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka, by contrast, have managed to hold steady at around two children per woman for decades. India too will be ageing and waning before long.
Beyond individual nations, if our species is to continue thriving, it must find a way to combine modernity with a pro-natal attitude. And on this front, there’s only so much a government can do. China may be famous for its controversial demographic policy, but the only way to really shape a population’s size is a cultural, rather than a political, shift — a change in attitude such as that witnessed in Georgia when its leading cleric called on its people to procreate. As China’s population starts to decline, and India’s looks set to follow, the question for the whole of humanity is: who, in the long run, is going to be keeping the lights on?