Dangerous Demographics: China’s population problem will eclipse its ambitions

If demographics are destiny, then China is facing its biggest challenge in decades with no easy long-term solution in sight


China’s seemingly inexorable rise has hit a roadblock: demographics. And despite desperate efforts to reverse the effects of the Communist Party’s one-child policy, experts warn it may be too late to prevent lasting damage.

Government researchers have predicted that the world’s largest population will peak at 1.4 billion people in 2029. However, it will then experience an “unstoppable” decline that could see it drop to 1.36 billion by 2050, reducing the workforce by as much as 200 million.

Should fertility rates remain unchanged, then China could even shrink to 1.17 billion people by 2065, according to the China Academy of Social Sciences.

“From a theoretical point of view, the long-term population decline, especially when it is accompanied by a continuously aging population, is bound to cause very unfavorable social and economic consequences,” the report said.

Introduced to slow population growth, China’s one-child policy that included heavy fines, forced abortions and sterilizations proved far too successful, cutting the birth rate per family from 2.9 children in 1979 to 1.6 in 1995.

In 2016, the limit was raised to two children, but births declined again after a brief uptick. Last year, the number of births dropped to 15.2 million, with some cities and provinces reporting decreases as large as 35 percent.

China’s fertility rate has now officially dropped to 1.6 children per woman, which is below the considered “replacement rate” of 2.1 children, although analysts have questioned whether the real rate could be as low as 1.18. Even a rate of 1.3 would see China’s population more than halve in just under eighty years.

Another legacy of the one-child policy has been a lack of women. Thanks to a preference for male heirs and selective abortions, China now has thirty-four million more men than women and by 2020 could have twenty-four million single men of marrying age unable to find wives.

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