The results of a once-a-decade census present China and its president, Xi Jinping, with a difficult choice: loosen party controls on family planning and immigration, or stick to policies and risk losing out. slow down economic growth.
On Tuesday, the Chinese government said births fell for a fourth consecutive year in 2020 and that the overall rate of population growth had almost slowed, with the total number of people reaching 1.41 billion. Almost 20% of citizens are 60 years or older.
Stagnant population growth, even for overpopulated China, translates into fewer young people to generate economic power, as the growing number of old people is a net drain on finances. This is the reverse of the demographic profile that underlies China’s economic miracle, essentially a productivity surge driven by an endless supply of cheap labor.
Demographers for years have called on Chinese political leaders to remove controls on family size, including a limit of two babies, and to push back the retirement age which can be as low as 50 for women. and 60 years for men. Welcoming young foreign immigrants could create a labor pool and a new impetus for growth. But China has resisted immigration, and control over people’s individual lives is the hallmark of the Communist Party regime. It was a monumental descent for the party in 2015 when it relaxed the one-child policy defined by then-leader Deng Xiaoping more than three decades earlier and widely seen as outdated.
Without major changes, it might be too late to do much more than relieve the pain. Beijing has sought to introduce technologies such as factory robots and encourage investment in elderly care. The authorities have also encouraged services to make the economy less dependent on labor-intensive manufacturing and construction.
For centuries, China has boasted of the world’s largest population, but statisticians say the latest figures indicate that within a few years it could lose that mantle to India, along with its larger families. many and its citizens much younger.
Births in China fell 18% in 2020, although Covid-19 may have played a role and if so, fewer newborns could also arrive in 2021.
China will remain huge, but the numbers point to a decline in the demographic trends that have come to define its modern era, with its huge working-age population spurring more than 40 consecutive years of economic expansion. A drop in household size, for example, to 2.6 last year from 3.1 a decade earlier, highlights the effects of birth restrictions since around 1980.
The challenge for China now is its shrinking working-age population relative to its growing elderly population, represented by just 12 million annual births, a fractional number for such a populous country. In the last census, 63% of Chinese were between 15 and 59 years old, up from 70% in 2010, while nearly 19% in 2020 were 60 years or older, up from 13% a decade earlier.
Older people generate little income, spend sparingly, reduce their savings and need expensive health care, all while collecting pensions – a national burden when there are fewer workers per retiree. “The big picture: An aging and shrinking population is a major obstacle to growth over the next few decades,” said a note from Trivium China, a Beijing-based research company.
Yet Chinese economists have for years warned of trends detailed in the census, and Beijing has not signaled any new policies when releasing the long-awaited figures. The top political priorities for 2021 are to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party and to pave the way for Xi to claim a third term. The five officials who provided the government’s comments on Tuesday were statisticians, not political leaders.
Ning Jizhe, the Chinese government’s chief statistician, said the country will remain a nation of over 1.4 billion citizens for some time, and it was unclear when the population could peak. “China’s advantage as a very large domestic market will exist for a long time to come,” he said.
“I really don’t feel like they’re panicking about this situation,” said Cai Yong, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “First, the data isn’t that bad and the population hasn’t gone down.”
Some economists and foreign individuals writing online in China appeared to question aspects of the data, which was released weeks later than initially expected and turned out to be more optimistic than expected. On the one hand, it was surprising that nearly 18% of the Chinese population is aged 14 or under, compared to 16.6% in the 2010 report.
Others said that the fact that the population has not declined completely could encourage Beijing to maintain its policy of limiting births. One woman, who identified herself as the mother of three from Guangxi Province, said in an online chat, “All of today’s posts seem so optimistic. Seems like even opening a third child is going to be difficult. Once again, disappointed!
The Communist Party’s birth control mandates are central to its tradition of engineering the natural environment, from diverting great rivers to controlling time, an activity that has produced mixed results.
During China’s most heady boom years, a common phrase justified the one-child policy –duo ren tai, or too many people. For years, political planners have used it to explain job and housing shortages.
But “too many people” was also the reason why the growth was so powerful. A young population coming of age worked on construction sites and factories for lower wages than in Western countries. Falling costs kept China’s export prices down and filled the central bank’s coffers with dollars.
It has been clear since 2012 that China’s working-age population has shrunk, and last year the number of migrant workers – who in boom years flocked to factories – fell by 1.8% to around 286 million.
Almost a fifth of the population is at or near retirement age, often with only one child per couple expected to support the elderly. And with increasing life expectancy, this group often includes four grandparents.
Still, experts say Beijing has done little to encourage employers to extend maternity leave and has struggled to control high housing costs and education spending that make it expensive to have maternity leave. children.
In a separate statement on Wednesday, the statistics bureau acknowledged the diminishing momentum, saying: “Zero and even negative population growth is getting closer and closer.”
China’s demographic challenges
Write to James T. Areddy at [email protected]
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