China will grow old before it gets rich

By the end of the century, the Chinese will be less than 500 million people - three times less than now

09:00 | 6 януари 2023
Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg
Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Dr. Plamen Dimitrov

Will China manage to displace the US as the world's economic and military political leader? Many analysts believe that it is only a matter of time. However, such a forecast does not take demographic trends into account. China is now the largest country in the world with a population of 1.426 billion people. In one or two years, India will be in the first position. But relegating to second place is the least of Beijing authorities' problems. In fact, behind the facade of the current Chinese multitude, the outlines of the demographic drama are already visible.

China's sustained and unrelenting population boom is a myth widely spread among the mass public. However, it does not correspond to reality at least since the beginning of our century. Between 1750 and 1950, China's population grew from 250 to 500 million people. Then came a real demographic explosion, and the next doubling of the Chinese population to 1 billion people took place in just over three decades between 1950 and 1982. Then the authorities decided that the country's resources were limited after all and imposed the "one child per family". This intervention, combined with urbanization and the relative impoverishment of hundreds of millions of Chinese, led to what is arguably the most dramatic decline in birth rates in all of human history. If in the 1960s century, a Chinese woman had an average of 6 and even 7 births, but in the 1990s this indicator already fell below 2.1 children, which is the generally recognized limit for population reproduction.

Since the beginning of 2016, the Chinese have received the right to have two children each, since June 2021, all birth restrictions have been removed. But it is already too late: the country is entering the final phase of the demographic transition that Western societies experienced decades earlier. No government policies have been able to reverse China's downward-sloping birth curve. The paradox is that after the abolition of the one-child rule, Chinese women no longer give birth. On the contrary, this year the indicator fell to 1.2 children per woman and will continue to go down.

If you want to know what the future of China will be - carefully study the numbers from the report "World Population Prospects", prepared annually by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations. According to this document, in 2023 China will for the first time record negative natural growth, its population will remain for 2-3 years at almost the current level, after which it will begin a slow decline, accelerating in the second half of the century. In 2050, the Chinese will be 1.32 billion, in 2079 they will fall below 1 billion for the first time, and at the end of the century they will be 767 million. This means that half of the country's population will melt in the next 78 years. In the second half of our century, the population of China will decrease by 10-12 million per year. According to UN experts, this is the most likely demographic scenario for China. There is also an optimistic version, in which by 2100 the population of the country will decrease "only" by 273 million people. However, it is less likely than the most pessimistic scenario, in which by the end of the century the Chinese will be less than 500 million people - three times less than now.

It is indicative of the fact that along with Japan and South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macao are in the last places in the world ranking of birth rates - all countries and cities that are populated mainly by Chinese and are much further ahead in their economic development than mainland China. A particularly bleak signal about China's demographic future comes from South Korea and Hong Kong, where birth rates have already fallen below 1 child per woman.

China's future demographic problems will also be exacerbated by the imbalance in the ratio of the number of men to women. Traditionally, Chinese families prefer male offspring. Advances in medicine have made it possible to know the sex of the baby early on and for the woman to have an abortion if the future child is not a boy. This ugly form of family planning was especially prevalent during the one-child-per-family policy. As a result, now in the group from 12 to 22 years old, the ratio between young men and girls is 119:100, and for 23-27 year olds - 115:100.

By itself, China's population decline doesn't seem like that big of a problem. Even if only half a billion people remain in the country, is that not enough? However, the question is not how many Chinese there will be, but what will be the ratio between workers and pensioners. Now the average age of the Chinese is 38.5 years, in 2050 it will be 51 years, and in the 70s of our century it will reach 57 years and stay at this level. If in 2022 only 10% of China's residents are over 60 years of age, then by the middle of the century this share will reach a third of the population.

The big question is where will the money for the pensions of the hundreds of millions of elderly Chinese come from? Now the ratio of working-age people to pensioners is 6 to 1, but by mid-century it will be 2 to 1. It is predicted that in 2079 working-age Chinese will already be less than half of the country's population. In fact, the size of the Chinese labor force has already passed its peak of 801 million people in 2015 and has been slowly declining since then. China's pension model is funded, meaning that money for the elderly will come from workers' pension contributions. And it should be taken into account that the average life expectancy will grow.

Birth rates in Western countries are also low, but they rely on immigration to maintain their population size and preserve the balance between workers and retirees. However, China is a closed communist country where nationality is defined above all by ethnic origin and foreigners do not have much chance to integrate. The net migrant flow to China is negative – minus 200-300 thousand people per year. Particularly indicative of the gloomy premonitions about the future of the most populous country in the world is the phenomenon of "birth tourism". In recent years, more and more wealthy Chinese women are going to give birth in the US, mostly in Southern California, so that the children can thus obtain US citizenship at birth. There is even a low-cost version of maternity tourism - with a trip to the closest US territory to China - the Mariana Islands, where pregnant Chinese women can enter without a visa for a period of 14 days.

The drama of China is that while the Western countries were going down the stairs to the basement of the demographic fall, the Asian colossus is going there with the fast elevator. Also, population aging caught up with the US and Western Europe when they were already wealthy. However, China will grow old before it gets rich. Yes, China's nominal GDP is already 73% of that of the USA, but if we look at the other indicator - GDP per capita, China is in 65th place in the world, almost at the same level as Bulgaria.

If China intends to take away US world leadership, it should try to do so in the next 15-20 years. After that, demographic problems will force the authorities in Beijing to look primarily at their domestic problems. Now the ratio between the population of China and the US is 4 to 1, by 2050 it will be 3.5:1, and at the end of the century - 2:1. Even if the Chinese manage to overtake America economically, it will be for a short time. The US side has several major advantages left - the democratic political system, the stronger military, the global dominance of the dollar and the English language, the soft power of cultural attraction and most importantly - the allies in the form of the EU, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Japan .