Shrinking China: A Demographic Crisis

“What is the real fulcrum of China’s strength?” a popular Chinese website asked in 2009. There was a one-word answer: “Population!” 

Citizens of the world’s most populous state take pride in their great numbers, and the country is, not surprisingly, filled with population determinists. “More people means more power,” wrote a poster named “Fang Feng” on the “Strong Country Forum” of the Communist Party’s People’s Daily. “This is the truth.” 

Perhaps so. But unfortunately for the Chinese, their country’s population is about to peak and then shrink fast. Fewer people may not necessarily mean less power, but a shriveling population requires the country’s leadership to overcome demographic trends rather than be propelled by them, as it has since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. 

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Accelerated demographic decline is already evident, set in motion by the decades-old one-child policy. Beijing’s vigorous enforcement of this statist planning measure has created population abnormalities that have already disfigured society and, in all probability, will do so for generations. China’s economy, the motor of the country’s rise in the post–Mao Zedong period, is likely to be especially hard hit.

China’s population will not peak in 2026, as estimated by the US
Census Bureau a half decade ago, or sometime in the 2030–35 timeframe, as United Nations statistics, mostly based on Beijing’s own numbers, now indicate. Senior official Liu Mingkang, speaking at the Asia Global Dialogue in May 2012, admitted growth will end in 2020. 

More important, China’s workforce is shrinking rapidly. The number of working-age Chinese fell for the first time in 2010, according to some of the country’s leading demographers, or in 2012, according to the official National Bureau of Statistics. As recently as the end of last decade, Beijing was predicting the high point would not be reached until 2016.

These developments are the result of plunging fertility. China had a total fertility rate—essentially the number of births per woman per lifetime—of 5.9 in the beginning of the 1970s. Today, official sources claim China’s TFR is “between 1.5 to 1.6.” In reality, it’s more like a “dangerously low” 1.4, according to Lu Yang of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and it could even be under 1.2.

In any case, China is now well below 2.1, the rate needed to maintain a stable population, and it is looking more like Western Europe in this regard every day.

The problem of a low TFR is compounded by the growing scarcity of females. As a result of the one-child policy and a social bias in favor of male children, the country probably has the world’s most skewed sex ratio at birth, 115.9 boys for every 100 girls, according to official data released in January. As a result of the imbalance—most societies do not exceed 106 boys to 100 girls—there are 33.8 million more men than women, according to Beijing’s official statisticians (or 51.5 million more, according to other estimates). 

Chinese leaders created this anomalous situation by lurching from one population policy to another. Mao, the founder of the People’s Republic, wanted as many Chinese in the world as possible. But his radical pro-growth policies were unsustainable, and toward the end of his life Beijing’s technocrats adopted the mostly voluntary “wan, xi, shao”—“late, long, few”—program to limit population growth. 

These efforts were mostly effective, with the birthrate falling by half in less than a decade. Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, was not satisfied with such progress, however. He rolled out the one-child policy, often termed the world’s most draconian social experiment, in 1979 and 1980, as one of his first initiatives after assuming power. 

Chinese leaders congratulate themselves for this policy, which they credit for preventing 400 million births, yet it’s clear the harshly enforced program has not only created a horrendous gender imbalance but has caused other demographic abnormalities, such as the almost complete disappearance of aunts, uncles, and cousins. 

Frightened by the demographic trends they themselves created, Chinese leaders have progressively relaxed the policy over time. The last major change was announced in November 2013, when additional couples were allowed two children, but the liberalizations have been too little and too late to avert a crisis, which now seems virtually inevitable. Demography may not be destiny, but population trends define the realm of the possible and are, especially in China’s case, unforgiving.


So why has China’s technocratic leadership failed to scrap an approach obviously not needed in more than a decade? 

First, population-control measures are administered by a large bureaucracy that has an interest in their maintenance and has been tenaciously fighting to keep them in place. Second, the population-planning apparatus is one of the Communist Party’s most effective means of controlling people both in the countryside and the city. At a time of protest and other signs of discontent, an increasingly repressive leadership apparently believes it cannot surrender the power the policy provides. Third, a reversal in long-held population programs, which have been strenuously defended for decades, would inevitably call into question the party’s judgment and therefore its legitimacy. Thus officials must consistently reaffirm their support for the now-counterproductive rules, what population expert Susan Yoshihara has termed “the world’s worst law.”

The price for this official intransigence will be high. As Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute wrote a half decade ago, “These problems will compromise economic development, strain social harmony, and place the traditional Chinese family structure under severe pressure; in fact, they could shake Chinese civilization to its very foundations.”

Some of these problems are already evident, such as increased prostitution, elevated HIV-infection rates, and renewed trafficking in females. Gangs are kidnapping women in Russia, Mongolia, North Korea, Burma, and Vietnam and transporting them to China, where they are sold and resold to husbands in “bachelor villages.” And there is also the rise of various criminal groupings, the so-called “dark forces.” All these maladies can be traced to the presence of unmarriageable males, “bare branches,” whose numbers are expected to rise over the coming decades. In the 2030–45 time frame, there will be no potential wives in China for a fifth of the country’s males.

And this could have political as well as social consequences. “Bare branches,” for instance, have been responsible for domestic turmoil throughout China’s dynastic history. One bare branch, Zhu Yuanzhang, founded the Ming dynasty, which was eventually destroyed by another one, Li Zicheng. The next set of emperors, the Qings, were in part ruined by the consequences of sex-ratio imbalances. “China, it seems, is re-creating the vast army of bare branches that plagued it during the 19th century,” write Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer in their controversial work, Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population

Hudson and den Boer also argue that such male-female imbalances impede democratization. “High-sex-ratio societies are governable only by authoritarian regimes capable of suppressing violence at home,” they contend. Accordingly, the pair thinks the prospect for “full democracy” in China is “poor.”

Although they write too sweepingly, there is a kernel of truth in their thesis on democratization. Li Jianxin, the author of The Structure of Chinese Population, states that behind the mass-violence incidents of the first decade of this century are “shadows of surplus males,” who magnify the challenges of maintaining social stability. Chinese officials are concerned about the problem as well, which is why some of them have suggested, for example, that single children are one of the causes of a juvenile crime wave.

The Chinese one-party state, as it has sought to quell this turmoil during both decades of this century, has noticeably become more repressive. The demographic turmoil is by no means the only reason Beijing has cracked down hard on civil society, but it has been used as an excuse to postpone political liberalization. 

Hudson and den Boer take their theory one step further, suggesting a linkage between the existence of large numbers of bare branches and the adoption of risk-taking foreign policies: “The security logic of high-sex-ratio cultures predisposes nations to see some utility in interstate conflict.” And as academics Christian Mesquida and Neil Wiener explain, “It is likely then that controlling elites astutely underwrite such risky undertakings as territorial expansion or colonization, especially when the alternative is having the aggressive tendencies of the male citizens directed at themselves.”

The idea that single males are “testosterone-powered violence machines” is a crude sexual stereotype that nonetheless has some validity, but to link their presence in society to belligerent foreign policies is a stretch. There are also, of course, reasons why a country like China, with too many males, might not be prone to misadventure abroad. 

For one thing, bare branches can cause so much trouble at home that a country’s leadership would become too busy maintaining internal stability to be able to channel their discontent into provocative acts against other states. Tens of millions of bare branches have traveled the Chinese countryside and populated the slums of great cities for a generation, but Beijing’s external policies did not become especially belligerent until a half decade ago. 

In China’s one-child nation, moreover, a son’s death in battle would mean the extinction of the family name, something unacceptable in a society attaching great importance to continuing bloodlines. China’s pampered “little emperors” may or may not be selfish, spoiled, and self-indulgent—and therefore not likely to sacrifice themselves for the nation—but Chinese parents today are surely more protective of their sons than their counterparts in earlier eras. 

There are also other demographic factors pushing China in a peaceful direction. As China’s population shrinks rapidly—as it undoubtedly will in the next two decades—the nation will become grayer. Countries with large elderly populations do not appear inclined to start wars because, in addition to the narrowing ambitions of aging societies, they lack the resources to engage in prolonged combat. 


We can only speculate as to the future states of mind of the Chinese people and their leaders. But this much is clear: The relentless and ruthlessly enforced one-child policy has created some of the most unusual demographic patterns in the absence of war and pestilence. We know that this policy can affect the country’s external policies in dramatic ways. At this point, however, we just do not know in which direction. 

There is also rapid demographic change along China’s borders. East Asia, for instance, is headed for a “death spiral,” a term applied to Japan but soon applicable to much of the rest of the region. Low Japanese fertility—the country has a TFR of 1.4—is matched by low fertility in South Korea (1.3) and Taiwan (1.1). Hong Kong and Macau, China’s two special administrative regions, have TFRs of 1.2 and 0.9, respectively. Japan, even with a slightly higher TFR, is further along the demographic curve than its neighbors, so it is leading the pack downward. By 2050, the Japanese will be living in “the oldest society the world has ever known,” but nearby countries will not be far behind. Together, they are headed to near-simultaneous demographic collapses without historical precedent.

So China’s demography, as perilous as it is, does not look out of place in East Asia except, of course, that the other societies are far more stable, both socially and politically, and therefore better able to handle wrenching demographic changes. Fertile South Asia presents a quite different situation. The populations of Pakistan and Bangladesh are growing fast, but the big concern for Beijing is India, a peer competitor with an estimated 2.5 total fertility rate. 

Sometime in the next 10 years, India will overtake China as the world’s most populous state, a status China has held for at least three centuries and perhaps for all recorded history. And India will continue to grow rapidly while China goes in the opposite direction. India’s population will peak, according to the UN, at 1.645 billion in 2065–70. By that period, India is projected to have 368 million more people than China, and, in all probability, the gap will be even larger, as UN numbers do not reflect the accelerated Chinese demographic decline evident today.

Where it counts—workers—China will be a distant second. India’s workforce will overtake China’s by 2030, if not sooner. By mid-century, there will be about 1 billion Indians of working age, at least 130 million more than the Chinese in the same group, perhaps as many as 200 million more.

At that time, the median age of India will be a young 37, versus China’s 46. People 65 and over will constitute 23.9 percent of China’s population but only 12.7 percent of India’s. “India has close to ideal demographics,” Credit Suisse’s Robert Prior-Wandesforde recently told CNBC. “It’s in a sweet spot.” China, on the other hand, has one of the world’s most unenviable population profiles at this time, and its government, by insisting on maintaining the one-child policy, appears determined to make its situation even less advantageous.

Chinese demographers know what future trends mean. Li Jianxin, for one, believes the Indians could end up dominating the middle of this century. Chinese economists agree. “When you see a country’s population decline, the country will definitely degrade into a second-rate one,” says economist Yao Yang of Peking University’s China Center for Economic Research. 

Yao may be overstating the situation, but he is generally correct in assuming that a deteriorating demographic profile will undermine an economy over the long term. China’s fabulous economic growth in the post-Mao period coincided with the country’s “demographic dividend,” an extraordinary bulge in the workforce created by boldly imagined and rigorously enforced population policies. It’s not clear that Chinese technocrats will be able to engineer consistent increases in gross domestic product while the country’s population tumbles. Already, India’s economy looks like it is growing faster than China’s.

Its economy propelled China’s astounding leap to the top ranks, and now many Chinese think that the present era belongs to their nation. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, talks about the years to come as “India’s century.” China, of course, appears to be the more powerful of the two now, but demographic trends suggest Beijing will not be the dominant one for long. 

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and a blogger at World Affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @GordonGChang.


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