China’s 7th Population Census
…and its Looming
These figures reveal that not only China’s population is declining in the future but its demographic structure is also deteriorating with a growing ageing population. They also show how the world’s most populous nation is going to have to face its demographic challenges sooner than expected. China’s demographic situation has, in a short time, moved to the forefront of Beijing’s economic concerns. The trend of fewer young people to replace a growing number of retirees has been clear for years but dealing with it has largely been kicked down the road as leaders have focused on mounting debt, a trade war with the US and reining in a once freewheeling private sector. Now, Beijing can no longer ignore the demographic shadow over long-term growth. Pension shortfalls in the country’s northeastern Rust Belt have forced the central government to ask state-owned enterprises as well as wealthier and younger provinces in the south to help out with the pension pool.
Experts have warned for years that such a scenario will reduce China’s productivity, inflate health-care costs and exacerbate social tensions. But there’s also a more hopeful possibility. Faced with a potential demographic death spiral, the government might finally embark on more humane policies to support struggling families — and help make China a more liveable and equitable place in the process.
In China, more than most places, demographic decline has been engineered by government policy. Efforts to control fertility date to Mao Zedong’s fears that a soaring population would constrain resources. Mao started China’s first family-planning programs, which contributed to a steady decline in the fertility rate. Although the rate more than halved during the 1970s, anti-natalist forces in the government still argued that a rising population was a long-term threat to the economy and to living standards.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, this view carried the day. A set of population-control initiatives known as the “one-child policy” went into force. The name was a bit of a misnomer; over the decades, fewer than half of Chinese parents were actually subject to a strict one-child quota. But even those under looser restrictions had reason to fear running afoul of official policy. Heavy fines could ruin a family. More brutal methods, including forced sterilizations and abortions, could traumatize entire communities.
Did it work? The government has long claimed with macabre satisfaction that its policies prevented 400 million births, and “relieved the stress on national finances.” That’s a debatable point in its own right, but China’s leaders seemed to believe it for many years. By the early 2010s, however, a pronounced demographic decline — with plummeting birth rates and a fast-ageing population — became impossible to ignore. The government reacted by enacting a universal two-child policy, but Chinese couples didn’t respond with the hoped-for baby boom.
These days, even the most patriotic news sites concede that China’s population will soon go into decline, if it hasn’t already. And, unlike a decade ago, high-level support now exists to radically rethink the government’s approach to the issue. In May, even as the census results languished, researchers at the People’s Bank of China published data showing an alarming workforce decline in the near future, and advocated for abolishing population controls altogether.
Such a reversal would’ve seemed far-fetched even five years ago. Today, it’s all but inevitable. If demographic decline is an existential threat — as the government now seems to think — there’s no remaining rationale for discouraging big families. The problem is that such a reform is decades too late. Even if enacted tomorrow, it would be unlikely to significantly impede China’s population decline, let alone reverse it.
So what else could be done?
One option is for officials to continue their recent quest to erect a kind of coercive pro-natalism, in which couples are strongly discouraged from divorcing and women are shamed into staying home. Another possibility is that China could address the range of additional factors that inhibit families from having children, including the rising cost of raising them in cities and the pervasive discrimination that pregnant women and mothers face in the workplace.
A practical government that’s serious about reversing demographic decline should strongly favour the latter option. A good first step would be to invest in building a universal child-care system to support working parents, and to offer tuition subsidies to those struggling to send their children to good urban schools. (Singapore offers one useful model.) Getting serious about workplace discrimination laws that could assure working women that their careers won’t be wrecked by pregnancy would also help. Neither change would be easy, but both would be more effective than the status quo.
For policymakers, the goal should be making China a more family-friendly country, and enhancing overall welfare in the process. For China’s citizens, that would offer a hint of a better future even in the midst of a looming decline.
The writer is a member of staff.