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There are (old?) news on the internet that China is worried about their population decline and they try to take active measures against it.

Colleges in China are now allowing students an entire week off to 'fall in love' as per a report in NDTV. The move comes amid an active attempt to reverse the country's declining population problem.

While being the country with the most people in the world is a nice-to-have label, that is probably quite irrelevant in the big picture.

So why are they so worried about their population decline? Even if they would lose a lot of their people (hypothetically, in the foreseeable future), they would still have "enough" left.

Note: I know that I cannot really define some of the terms I used, like "having enough people", and I hope you can answer even in spite of the ambiguity.

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  • "that is probably quite irrelevant in the big picture." Why should the number of people be irrelevant? Often output scales with the number of people working on something. "would still have "enough" left." Depends strongly on what you mean by enough. Nobody knows what the goal of the Chinese government is for the next decades but maybe they think that the numbers aren't enough for that. Apr 5, 2023 at 15:19
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    This video by Vox is pretty informative. Apr 5, 2023 at 15:37
  • Its all about demographics. These two vids explain it better that I can: youtube.com/watch?v=x64f7NxQKKk and youtube.com/watch?v=HeONXVh9G28
    – Daveo
    Apr 5, 2023 at 23:47
  • China is not the country with the most people in the world anymore.
    – gerrit
    Apr 6, 2023 at 8:29
  • @gerrit All links I've found so far puts China as the most populated country, although it's close (the last link seems to have some problems with sorting/caching, as India's population is ranked first, despite having a lower population than China).
    – NotThatGuy
    Apr 6, 2023 at 12:48

6 Answers 6

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A rapid population decline due to low birth rates leads to the situation where you eventually have a lot of old people, and very few young ones. This in turn can mean that either old people can't retire anymore, or that somehow the productivity of young folks needs to massively increase. Thus, it may not be the overall numbers which are the reason for concern, but the change of numbers.

On a lesser note, the Chinese government is prone to quite nationalistic rhetoric at times. Nationalists seem to take it for granted that a decline of us-people (compared to them-people) is baaad.

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  • For countries with very large population and low HDI, the productivity is already low due to disguised unemployment (mostly in agriculture), poverty and poor health outcomes. Wouldn't decrease in population actually help increase productivity and reduce pressure on the "working" pool? E.g. in countries like India, Pakistan, Nigeria even with decreasing population, the percentage of people gainfully employed would probably not fall as fast. China on the whole may not be a "poor" country but the rural areas are far below urban cities in HDI (or so I have heard).
    – RedBaron
    Apr 6, 2023 at 4:49
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    "due to low birth rates" – could add that unlike in North America or Western Europe, those low birth rates are not offset by net immigration
    – gerrit
    Apr 6, 2023 at 8:31
  • "A rapid population decline due to low birth rates leads to the situation where you eventually have a lot of old people, and very few young ones." Yes, but considering the alternative is a system where we need a population increase, leading to overpopulation and all the negative effects that has, is that really such a problem?
    – Mast
    Apr 8, 2023 at 7:16
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    @Mast A slow population decline should be much easier to handle.
    – Arno
    Apr 8, 2023 at 16:07
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The problem is primarily a demographic one.

In most systems, children pay for the sustainment and health costs of their parents and grandparents one way or the other because old people typically cannot work anymore and rely on others paying and taking care for them, in part or completely.

It does not matter whether this is through tax, direct money (or food) transfer, or pay-as-you-go system: Since the vast majority of people cannot save enough money in their work-life through saving plans, insurance, or otherwise to sustain them through their pension time (especially true in low-income countries like China), some or even all of it has to be payed by people who do work at the moment.

The alternative is letting these old people starve and die off.

This system of care and transfer of money between elderly people and people in their work-life presupposes that there are enough (and typically more) people in their work-life than beyond it.

This already changes rapidly because of better health care, the former one-child policy and other policies making it socio-economically burdensome to give birth to and sustain children in China mean that in pretty near future, there will be a ratio of 1 to 2, 3, or even 10 younger vs. old people.

Few people are able to feed even one or two elderly from their wages. And that does not even account for health & care costs.

Also, fewer people working mean an economy in recession, lowering state income and further limiting the possibility for compensation through policy.

TL;DR

Thus, it is an economic necessity for economic stability and social peace to not have a shrinking population because of too few births: Both because there won't be enough workers to do the jobs and the progressively older society will not be able to cover their needs through productivity at some point.

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    @PhilipKlöcking to be fair, productivity (that is, GDP per hour worked) is very much affected by economy structure. "Capitalist western countries" economies are usually dominated by the service industry sector (in particular, financial services generate a lot of GDP), and in "communist eastern China" that sector is tiny compared to, say, France or USA. That could be interpreted as capitalists having more people that could be producing more physical goods instead of moving around virtual money in stock market. Apr 6, 2023 at 4:41
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    @DanilaSmirnov That is true and for me, the financial sector should be completely decoupled from the rest of the economy in principle. Yet, the difference especially in the agricultural sector may be even higher considering e.g. that rice is hard to handle with machines. Apr 6, 2023 at 5:41
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    @PhilipKlöcking GDP is a completely useless metric, either in absolute values or per capita. You might as well compare BMI/(astrology*homeopathy) between China and Europe. Apr 6, 2023 at 7:28
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    @EricDuminil If we are speaking strictly of domestic production and consumption, yes. But we are speaking of global markets here. And there, it is not useless, especially if we look at sectoral GPD. Apr 6, 2023 at 8:12
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    Food is not the biggest expense. It's actually medical care and end-of-life support. So there won't be starvation, just premature death from other illnesses. Apr 7, 2023 at 19:49
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It's important to remember that to just maintain a population you need an average of 2.1 births

Assuming no net migration and unchanged mortality, a total fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman ensures a broadly stable population.

There's a couple of major things feeding this

The legacy of the "one child" policy

China, for decades, had a strict one child per family rule. And by strict, I mean heavy fines, beatings, kidnappings and sometimes forced abortions

In a city setting they could maybe, if you worked for a [civil service-like] job they might threaten to fire you. ... This is for having a child. If you went for a termination, all of this would go away. But, of course, then there were people who really wanted the child and then they would try and evade the whole process of being taken away for a forced abortion, because here's the thing: Between your conception and your delivery date, all bets are off — they can make you.

This, of course, had the effect of promoting abortions in general. This lead to a much more serious problem that is now manifesting itself. In Chinese society (as with many Asian cultures) having a son was preferred and if you only get one... sex-selective abortions became commonplace. This has lead to a major population imbalance (emphasis mine)

But later in the 1990s, technology made it easier for people to do all these scans and companies like General Electric made these scanning machines that were portable and small enough that you could go from village to village and you could determine the sex of your fetus ... for as little as $10 or $20, so people would just have an abortion instead of carrying a child to full term. ... The Nobel economist Amartya Sen estimated there were about 100 million missing women, women that were never born or killed or aborted across Asia.

The estimates of that imbalance are sobering

According to China Statistics Press 2013, China's sex ratio at birth was 111 in 1990, 117 in 2001, 121 in 2005 and 119 in 2010.

The Chinese are now more like their Western counterparts

For decades, Western countries have been in population decline.

There are good reasons governments have struggled to find a solution. Firstly, the decline is down to positive social developments, starting from improved infant mortality and the end of child labor. People no longer need an army of children to ensure some survive to work the land. More recently, opportunities for migration, universal access to contraception, the increase of women in higher education and greater female participation in the labor force have led many to delay starting their families.

China is a victim of their own success in that regard. The Chinese often cite the high cost of living as a reason they are not having children now

“Honestly, I don’t want to have a relationship, I don’t want to get married, and I don’t want to have children,” said Zhang Jie, a 31-year-old salesman with a small private trading company in Guangzhou who recently broke up with his girlfriend after four years. “For the working class, it is simply becoming more and more unaffordable to raise a child in urban cities.”

This bodes poorly for China

This isn't something you can fix by just telling people that it's now OK to have two (or three) children. With their changes in demographics now backed in, this will take decades to reverse (assuming it can be reversed at all). In an act of civil disobedience, a man defied COVID lockdowns and became a social media star

Last year, a video went viral in China showing a young man who refused to be taken into a quarantine camp being warned by police that his punishment would affect his family for three generations. He coolly retorted: “We are the last generation, thank you.”

And China will face labor shortages in the future as a result

Chien-Chung Wu, an associate professor at Taipei University of Maritime Technology, said the population decline would eventually have a huge impact on China’s economy. He believes the shrinking of the labour force and consumer market would make China lose its edge and prompt foreign businesses to turn to other Asian countries.

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    An important difference between China and Europe/North America: the latter offsets natural decline with immigration from poor countries. China does not have a culture of being an immigrant nation.
    – gerrit
    Apr 6, 2023 at 8:35
  • @gerrit The one-child policy lead to a shortage of eligible women marriage partners and an increase in the social acceptability of marrying women who came as workers. I heard (source unrecalled) that this effect was great enough to be socially significant. Apr 8, 2023 at 12:36
  • @RussellMcMahon it's in fact so significant that numerous Chinese friends in the US have told me that it's pretty much impossible for a man to get married in China these days without owning an apartment/house. This is apparently one of the reasons for even former ghost towns seeing massive demand from buyers. Jun 10, 2023 at 20:42
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Other answers have talked about the social welfare aspects (taking care of old people).

There are also harder-nosed issues with a quickly aging and shrinking population. Remember that China perceives the need to assert itself in a challenging world. Which gives it a different perspective than say the same generational challenges seen from Italy.

Economic impacts

The Economist Sept 2022 - Will China’s economy ever overtake America’s?

In the longer term, China’s ageing population will mean further difficulties. The workforce could shrink by 15% over the next 15 years, according to some estimates. Capital Economics, a consultancy, thinks China’s GDP might draw close to America’s or even surpass it by the mid-2030s only to fall behind again as its demographic decline asserts itself.

Asia Nikkei Jan 2023 - China's falling population threatens its industrial and military might

The People's Liberation Army is struggling with recruitment as well. The Communist Party-run People's Daily reported in August that the maximum enlistment age was being raised to 26 from 24, noting that priority would be given to college students majoring in science and engineering.

...

In a country where single-child households remain the norm, few parents are keen to send their well-educated children off to an arduous career in the military.

Military

SCMP May 2021 - Chinese military faces challenge from falling fertility rate

Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Tong said that since 1993, many mainland military officials and observers had voiced concerns about the impact of the one-child policy – introduced in 1979 – on the military. In an open report to the central government in 2012, Professor Liu Mingfu from the PLA National Defence University warned that at least 70 per cent of PLA soldiers were from one-child families, and the figure rose to 80 per cent among combat troops.

And an even more dramatized take on this : Edward Luttwak Jan 2023 @ Unherd

In China’s case, a manpower shortage undercuts military spending in the PLA’s ground forces and naval forces, and soon it will affect manned air units as well. The PLA ground forces now stand at some 975,000, a very small number for a country that has 13,743 miles of borders with 14 countries.

Last, these articles need to be looked at in the very current context - early 2023 - that India's population is surpassing China's for the first time.

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As a supplement to all the other answers, I want to point out that population decline is a concern for most countries that are experiencing it, not just China. See:

There's nothing about this unique to China, so it should not be surprising that China is worried about population decline.

See Wikipedia for more about the dangers of population decline.

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  • Not my downvote. I did not analyze the population decline anywhere, so thanks for the tip. However, my curiosity was aroused by the active attempt to increase natality in China with the 'fall in love' type of vacation.
    – virolino
    Apr 6, 2023 at 6:11
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    This answer provides interesting side information, but it should also include some content to address the actual question (why China, not another country is worried about the population decline) ?
    – Alexei
    Apr 6, 2023 at 6:52
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    The, valid, point is that other countries worry about this, so it is a reasonable expectation that China would worry for much the same reasons as linked to (a brief quote would help in case of future dead links). Apr 6, 2023 at 7:34
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    I think this is a comparison between apple and pears. While it is a worry in many developed countries, and an emerging problem in some of them as well, the scale of it is magnitudes bigger in China not only in absolute numbers but also relatively. They actively dumped the birth rates in several ways beyond one-child-policy that had not been intended (see the anser of Machavity). The consequences are effective for decades to come. And they do not have compensating immigration. China is desperate and has to act fast and decisive now. That's the main reason for some "interesting" ideas. Apr 6, 2023 at 13:16
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    @Allure First off, South Korea was in the news with an equally awkward suggestion by politicians. Secondly, China has had such a situation for decades and the ratio between sexes is and was a very delicate problem that remains immanent. Apr 6, 2023 at 15:18
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You have to understand that population is one of the factors that contributes to China's economic growth in the global market.

With a large population, you get to enjoy low labor costs and hence more trade.

With a larger population, housing prices can easily tank.

On the political side, with a massive population, even average GDP is low still has quite an amount of stake "influence" other country decision on foreign policy, either in terms of economics or military.

And without population china will lose all the benefits that come with it from above.

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    Ref. to "With larger population, housing price can easily tank." - is it "without" instead of "with" here?
    – Alexei
    Apr 6, 2023 at 7:06

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