China’s demographics spell decline not domination

By | August 14, 2022

Niall Ferguson writes:

Is it only a matter of time before we all admit that the “post-American world” has arrived, and the “Chinese Century” has begun? Should we just throw in the towel and let China have Taiwan?

Well, no. Because if you think we’ve got problems, I can assure you that those of America’s principal rival are worse. Much worse. And, unlike our problems, China’s do not have the solution that obviously exists for the US — namely immigration reform of the sort that has already been achieved elsewhere in the Anglosphere.

In the latest edition of its World Population Prospects, the United Nations Department of Economic Affairs offers various possible scenarios for countries’ populations. In the case of the US, both the low-fertility projection and the zero-migration projection see a decline in population by the end of the century of around 16%, from the current 336.5 million to around 280 million. But that is not the UN’s base case. In its medium-fertility variant, the US population rises 17% to 394 million by 2100. In a high-fertility scenario, it rises to 541 million.

By contrast, the UN offers no scenario in which China’s population does not decline. Best case, it falls by a fifth. Base case, it declines by 46%, to 771 million. Worst case it falls by nearly two thirds, to 494 million. (You will notice that would be below the end-of-century total for the US in the high-fertility scenario.)

As Nicholas Eberstadt and Peter Van Ness of the American Enterprise Institute have pointed out, this is major revision by the UN. Twenty years ago, the Population Prospects projected China’s population to rise from 1.28 billion in 2001 to 1.43 billion this year and then to keep rising to a peak of 1.45 billion in 2031. The 2031 peak was still there in the 2019 World Population Prospects. Now, according to the UN’s latest medium projection, the peak will be in just two years’ time and the 2050 population will be 100 million less than previously forecast.

The explanation is certainly not Covid, or any other source of increased mortality. The main reason for the change can be found in the most recent birth data published by China’s National Bureau of Statistics, which point to a “swan dive” in births since 2016, as Eberstadt and Van Ness put it. The paradox is that 2016 was the year the one-child policy — introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1979 — was replaced by a two-child policy. The timing is indeed “curious — not to say counterintuitive.” So what is going on?

The Chinese government has stopped denying it has a demographic problem. Last month Yang Wenzhuang, the head of population for China’s National Health Commission, admitted that his country’s population would start to shrink before 2025, according to a report in the state-run Global Times. “This is an inevitable result of a long period of low fertility rate,” Huang Wenzheng of the Center for China and Globalization was quoted as saying. “It can be predicted that China’s birth rate will continue to shrink for more than a century.”

But even this admission understates the problem, according to Yi Fuxian of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who has argued for years that we should not trust China’s official birth statistics. His book “Big Country with an Empty Nest” — which was banned in China when it was published in 2007 — predicted that the Chinese population would begin to shrink in 2017, not in the early 2030s. In 2019, Yi argued on the basis of vaccination and other data that China’s population had already begun to decline in 2018 (one year later than his estimate). Now he has been vindicated. [Continue reading…]

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