China’s Population Decline Is Not Yet A Crisis. Beijing’s Response Could Make It One

by Carl Minzner

China’s population is now declining.  Last week, officials announced that 2022 marked the first drop in total population in six decades, since the famine of the Great Leap Forward.   

This long-expected event is the result of decades-long declines in Chinese fertility rates.  Over the course of the 21st century, this will result in a steadily decreasing population.  Current United Nations estimates show China’s total population falling by up to 100 or 200 million by 2050.  

China’s demographic trajectory is far from unusual.  It is following in the path set by the rest of East Asia.  Japan’s population peaked in 2008 and has been steadily declining since, with total population now falling by roughly half a million per year.  Taiwan tipped over into negative growth in 2020, South Korea in 2021.  

Neither a shrinking – nor a growing – population represents a crisis in and of itself.  Rather, the far more important question is whether state authorities can respond effectively to the challenges such trends pose.  There are serious questions as to whether Beijing is up to this task.

First, Beijing has been slow to adjust existing policies to respond to China’s rapid aging.   

Consider pensions.  For well over a decade, Chinese officials have regularly made noises about the need to raise the official retirement age from unsustainably low levels set back in the middle of the 20th century – 55 for women (50 for blue-collar female workers) and 60 for men – in light of impending financial pressures.  But faced with public opposition from urban elites who benefit most from existing policies, Beijing has repeatedly punted, failing to take meaningful reform.  Current central policies amount to – yet again – gesturing vaguely in the direction of raising retirement ages by 2025.  

Second, it is unclear whether Beijing will be able (or willing) to create new frameworks to respond to emerging needs.   

Labor and migration are a key example.  Elsewhere in East Asia, inbound flows of foreign labor have been a crucial component of responses by states and societies alike to rapidly aging populations.  Over the past thirty years, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have seen their percentages of foreign residents steadily rise to 2-4% of total population.  Much of this consists of flows of migrant workers – often on short-term contracts without the potential for citizenship – to fill economic niches left vacant (or created) by demographic change.  Taiwan, for example, now has some 800,000 migrant workers – primarily from Southeast Asia – filling crucial roles in construction, industry, and eldercare. 

In China, the vast flows of rural migrant workers to urban cities that powered decades of rapid economic growth over the reform era are plateauing in number.  And China’s own population of domestic migrant workers is also rapidly aging – with a median age of 42 (in 2021), compared with 34 (in 2008).  Yet with virtually no labor flows into China, it remains unclear who, if anyone, will emerge to fill the void.  [Robots and technology?  Those have not allowed far wealthier countries elsewhere in East Asia to avoid reliance on international labor flows. Why should China be different?]  

Last, Beijing’s leaders themselves could very well further harm China’s demographic prospects through their own short-sighted policies. 

Beijing is steadily moving towards a full-throated embrace of pro-natalist policies to mitigate the challenges of a declining population.  But as Party policy under Xi Jinping pivots in the direction not only increasingly harsh authoritarian rule, but one with strongly patriarchal overtones, there are serious risks that Beijing’s new-found interest in ramping up births and marriages will result in repressive and poorly designed state policies that severely harm the rights of Chinese women, undermine gender relations, and drive fertility rates even lower.  

How Beijing responds to these challenges – or fails to – will be a far better barometer of whether China’s demographic shifts indeed do evolve into a crisis than the statistical population declines that it will regularly register for decades to come.

(Source: Council on Foreign Affairs)