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China’s Coming Demographic Crash

China’s official Xinhua News Agency reports that Beijing’s obstetrics wards are overflowing. The city, according to the Health and Family Planning Commission, expects  300,000 births this year, an increase of twenty percent or 50,000 over 2015. Xinhua estimates that 22 million babies will be born nationwide in 2016.  

Yet the talk about newborns seems to me a feeble attempt to mask a population crash that looms.  

Effective the beginning of this year, the Chinese central government relaxed the notorious one-child policy to permit two children per couple. The liberalization will increase the birth rate nationwide, but, apart from state media, few think the increase will halt a severe decline in population.

“It’s already too late,” says Yi Fuxian of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a critic of Chinese population policies. “China’s population is aging quickly and will start to shrink soon."

According to the UN’s most recent set of statistics, the country’s population will peak in 2028 at 1.42 billion people. One Chinese official, speaking at a conference in 2012, said the country would top off in 2020. In any event, by the end of the century the country’s population will be just a hair over a billion according to the most optimistic assessment.

Speaking to the South China Morning Post, Yi predicts that China will soon find it difficult to increase fertility, and he looks to be correct. Once declining birth rates are baked into a society, they are extremely difficult to reverse. Governments can provide subsidies, but payments only accelerate births that would have occurred anyway. Even the removal of birth restrictions may not mean much when relentless indoctrination has taken hold, as it has in China.

China’s total fertility rate—generally, the number of births per female of childbearing age—is now low. There are varying estimates, but Yi pegs the number at 1.3. State media, citing the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, suggests it is 1.4. In any event, the number is well below that necessary to maintain a stable population, 2.1.

There are many consequences to low fertility. One casualty will be the hope of many Chinese officials that their economy will become the world’s biggest. “Not so long ago, conventional wisdom in China held that the country’s economy would soon overtake America’s in size, achieving a GDP perhaps double or triple that of the US later this century,” writes Howard French in The Atlantic. “As demographic reality sets in, however, some Chinese experts now say that the country’s economic output may never match that of the US.”

French notes that China now has a population that is about four and a half times as large as America’s but at the turn of the century China will be just a smidgeon more than twice that of America.

Well before then, China will pass an inflection point. In 2022, according to the UN, India will take China’s population crown. That will be the first time in at least three centuries—and maybe even in all recorded history—that China will not be the world’s most populous society.

Yi attributes China’s coming population crash to Beijing’s self-destructive policies that restricted births, or as he calls it, “my own nation’s suicide.”  

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