China’s population problem is overrated


For the first time in 61 years, there are fewer Chinese. The US sees the weakening of its big competitor in it, while Beijing demands more babies. And the Chinese themselves? They see in a ‘birth strike ‘ their last chance of resistance.

China’s population of 1.4 billion has shrunk slightly this year, for the first time in 61 years. That “contraction” was no surprise to anyone. Demographers have been predicting a structural decline for some time, after a population peak that would fall before 2034. Now 2023 already seems to herald the beginning of the downward trend. Shrinkage scenarios assume that “only” 1.24 billion Chinese will remain by 2100, possibly even 1 billion or 900 million.

Actually, China is following the trend in all developed countries: aging, low birth rates, fewer people. The sharp kink in births that China is experiencing is even more extreme in Hong Kong, Singapore or South Korea. And the European population will still make up 3.8 percent of the world’s population by 2100, compared to 5.9 percent now.

The fact that China is still being talked about in terms of ‘unseen crisis’ or ‘demographic bomb’ has two reasons. First, the decline in China is up to four times faster than in Western Europe, and the ratio between pensioners and working people there will be even more skewed (although Japan has an even worse ratio). A second reason is the enormous geopolitical significance attached to these figures. In the ongoing competition between China and the US, population size is seen as an asset.

Ever since the US plunged into a financial crisis in 2008, observers in Washington have been debating when China will overtake the US as a superpower. The fear of that approaching moment led the US to stage its trade and technology war with Beijing. In Washington, the argument lives that China will ” grow old before it gets rich.” Many more elderly people and a smaller share of the world’s population are taking the wind out of China’s sails, according to the train of thought of experts such as Gordon Chang or Evan Medeiros , former security adviser to Barack Obama.

The thesis is accepted as fact in many Western media: for example, Time speaks of an “irreversible decline” and The Washington Post about a “demographic alarm phase”. But that China has been counted out because its population is shrinking from now on is partly wishful thinking. First, the status of superpower goes hand in hand with many factors, such as rising productivity, innovation, and policy choices. China is irreplaceable in the global economy not only because it has many people, but also because it makes crucial products on a scale that few countries can emulate, because it is an important single market with a performance-oriented administration and well-educated population, and because it controls many raw materials.

And those who have “demographic” potential must also live up to it, something that “heir to the throne” India, according to Indian critics, fails to do. “The population decline in China will be offset for some time by continued migration from the countryside to cities,” writes economist Chen Zhao. A larger urban population still provides benefits, because it enables innovation and product development on a large scale.

“China’s demographic problem is overrated,” says sociologist Baozhen Luo. At most, an easy growth phase in the economy comes to an end, in which quick profits were made because there were many workers who worked for low wages. The era of low-wage Chinese is definitely over now that Chinese labor is worth more.
Surplus of men

Nevertheless, the regime is very worried because it has to cut knots. China is the only country that does not allow migration. It is not prepared for integration of newcomers and must weigh whether it keeps the door closed.

Nor does China have a finished pension system: it must build that from scratch, which costs money – money that cannot go to military expansion or industrial subsidies. Will China remain the same country if it has to bear the tax burden of health care and Pensions? How do people react to the inevitable increase in the (still) low retirement age?

In order to avoid too severe a shock, President Xi Jinping therefore wants women to have more children. Abortion and divorce are complicated, and city services are pressuring women with calls to inquire about the ” next pregnancy.” That policy is doomed to failure, because women see too many structural obstacles to giving birth to many children.

In a poll of 20,000 Chinese women of childbearing age, two-thirds recently said they did not want children. The cost of childcare and education is disproportionately high. The labor market is hostile to mothers, while highly educated urban women do not want to disappear to the professional back plan. Women have no legal claim to the marital property, which makes them much more vulnerable if they earn less. Many families expect that the daughter-in-law in infancy submits to son-in-law and also takes on all the care of the elderly. Having children outside of marriage is not socially accepted and not legally interesting either.

That is why the urban middle class and feminists have long opposed marriage and having children. Activists call the widespread childlessness a “birth strike”, because they believe that Chinese society is too little hospitable to new life. The working hours are too long, the service life too extreme and the regime too suffocating. ‘We are the last generation’ is a common slogan of young people who see so few opportunities for resistance or change that they prefer to let themselves be extinguished.

How Xi can reverse those feelings of frustration is a big question mark. Half of all Chinese under the age of thirty are single, Learn the national figures, and of all women 39 percent are. For men, this percentage is even higher, because the long one-child policy has led to a surplus of men who do not find a partner.