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15 Feb, 2022 13:20

China’s dramatic population decline may have a profound effect on its future

Why Beijing is not too concerned about falling birth rates
China’s dramatic population decline may have a profound effect on its future

The Chinese are refusing to have children. Despite getting the green light from the Communist Party to have a third child, statistics show that fewer and fewer citizens are thinking about procreating. At this rate, China’s population will be 48% smaller by the end of the century, and even Nigeria will surpass it. RT consulted with experts to learn why this is happening and find out whether a lack of people could interfere with the ambitious plans of the world’s most populous country.

China’s birth rate has fallen below the level of the Great Famine during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. Data from the PRC’s National Statistics Bureau indicate that only 10.62 million Chinese were born in 2021. With a population of 1.4 billion people, the country’s average birth rate of 7.52 per 1,000 people could be called shockingly low.

At the same time, the mortality rate in China has remained slightly lower than its birth rate, amounting to 10.1 million people in 2021. So, China’s population is still growing, but the trend over the last five years speaks for itself. For example, in 2020, Chinese mothers gave birth to 12 million children, as opposed to 14.65 million in 2019. Most likely, the population of the People’s Republic of China will already see a decline in 2022.

As Alexander Lomanov, deputy director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO), noted in an interview with RT, over the course of history, the same phenomenon can sometimes be seen repeating itself, but for completely different reasons – and this is one such case.

“If, during the difficult years of the Big Leap, China’s population fell because life was very bad, now China’s population is set to decrease because life has become very good. This is an amazing paradox. China has once again proved that Western stereotypes regarding Eastern civilizations – that their populations instinctively reproduce to the detriment of their material quality of life – are wrong, and that the general demographic laws by which humanity lives also apply to China,” Lomanov said.

A year ago, sociologists at the People’s University of China linked a sharp drop in the birth rate to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. RT experts agree that the covid factor may have added to the reluctance of Chinese to produce offspring, but it definitely can’t be considered the main one.

Changed Course Too Late

The Communist Party’s former ‘one family, one child’ policy, which was adopted in 1979, is often cited as one of the reasons for China’s current demographic crisis. It was believed at the time that a poor country with a high birth rate (6 children on average per woman) had no choice but to introduce such restrictions if there was to be enough water, land, and other resources for everyone.

According to this policy, Chinese citizens were allowed to have no more than one child per family, or two per family in the village if the first child was a girl.

Those who violated the rules were fined four- to eight-months’ pay and dismissed from work, and the Western media reported that local officials sometimes forced pregnant women to have abortions, or even had them forcibly sterilized.

However, much depended on the rules in a particular region of the country. For example, before the restrictions were lifted, the residents of Beijing and some other provinces could have two children if both parents were the only children in their family. In addition, birth control was not as strictly enforced with national minorities.

These rules remained in effect for more than 30 years. Back in 2014, the media reported that the city of Wuxi had ordered world-famous director Zhang Yimou and his wife Chen Ting to pay a fine of $1.2 million for having three children outside of marriage and without permission. Zhang apologized and accepted the punishment.

But only the rich could afford to take such risks and pay fines. During the same period, a large number of people appeared in China who were not officially accounted for. These undocumented people faced problems gaining access to a school education as children, and in obtaining work as adults. Moreover, as boys are traditionally much more valued in China, if the first-born child was a girl, she was sometimes killed, which further exacerbated the country’s gender gap.

Only children were spoiled as heaps of attention were showered on them by family members, which led to a number of problems, from bratty personalities to acute pressure to justify parental hopes. As the middle class grew, more and more children were sent to sports schools and extracurricular clubs. Many spent 12 hours a day studying. Due to the huge workload, these ‘little emperors’ often found their health destroyed by the age of 10 or 11. Almost all had their eyesight deteriorate during childhood.

The ‘one child’ policy prevented 400 million Chinese from being born over 36 years, which helped the country get out of poverty and raise the average standard of living. But by the 2010s, the authorities realized that this policy was not suitable for a modern society or the goals of the state… and perhaps a lot later than they should have.

China abandoned the ‘one family, one child’ policy in 2016. And, as it turned out, this alone has not been enough to automatically spur a surge in the birth rate, given the country’s current socio-economic conditions. Since the reform was passed, only one in ten families in large cities have decided to have a second child.

Children Are Expensive!

Andrey Karneev, head of the Higher School of Economics’ School of Oriental Studies, says that Chinese social scientists are debating whether the decline in the birth rate is due to the ‘one child’ policy or modern lifestyles.

“Most likely, the main factor is urbanization, just as it has been in the developed countries of Europe, as well as America, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. There is nothing new about this, it’s all part of the same trend,” he said.

The urbanization of China’s population has already reached 60%, and this figure continues to grow. Life in megacities dictates its own rules and instills other values in new generations – people marry late, work a lot, and give birth rarely, preferring entertainment and travel to child-rearing. This is primarily due to a longing for self-realization and a desire to live for your own pleasure, rather than the sake of your offspring. In sociology, this is known as ‘demographic transition.’ Lomanov is confident that the negative trend in China’s birth rate will not be easily broken.

“Chinese society is getting rich too fast. It is already dominated by the middle class. The maximum that can probably be achieved is to maintain reproduction rates, and that only with great difficulty,” he believes.

In addition, potential Chinese parents feel obligated to provide their prospective offspring with a good start in life. 

As Ivan Zuenko, a researcher at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Institute of International Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, put it in an article for Profile magazine, many young Chinese couples “don’t think they can afford it.”

“When thinking about a child, the Chinese immediately begin to estimate how much its education will cost them. And these are not happy thoughts. Given how much education is valued in Asian societies, multiplied by the Chinese maximalism in everything, the cost of a good preschool in Beijing or Shanghai can easily reach $2,000-$2,500 per month,” he observed.

Lomanov confirms that young Chinese couples today are guided primarily by whether they will be able to raise a child without sacrificing their quality of life.

“After all, besides calculating how much they will spend on raising and educating a child, people also need to think about how they will pay off their mortgage. Housing in China is very expensive. In an inverted demographic pyramid, a married couple, as a rule, takes care of four other people, or at least the husband’s parents. According to Chinese tradition, it is impossible to leave elderly parents without support. You cannot say: “You’ll need to manage on your own – we have our own worries.” And, of course, most families do try to find a way to help their elderly parents, so the load is exorbitant,” Lomanov explains.

In his opinion, China’s leadership is also partly to blame. “At the beginning of the reforms in the 1980s, people were simply told, “Enrich yourself if you can.” But generations are changing. Now, young people are increasingly saying, “We don’t want to get rich and overexert ourselves. We want to live for our own pleasure, without putting a huge effort into social development.” It is clearly impossible to fight this exclusively with propaganda,” says Lomanov.

Partly due to the new behavioral patterns of young people, Xi Jinping has started talking about building a society of ‘universal welfare’ or a society of ‘universal prosperity’ (共同富裕), Lomanov added. By 2025, gaps between income and consumption levels should be reduced, and, by 2035, there should be broad access to public services, and incomes in villages and cities should be equalized.

In 2021, on the eve of International Children’s Day, which is observed on June 1, the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party gave Chinese families permission to have a third child. But the state, represented by the PRC’s deputy director of the State Committee for Health and Planned Parenthood, Yang Jinzhong, acknowledged that the measures taken to stimulate fertility rates will only help in the long term, if at all.

Will robots do the work... or Pakistanis?

But can demographic problems undermine the policies and grandiose plans of the new contender for world leadership? Experts interviewed by RT don’t foresee any big problems for China in the next 10-20 years.

Able-bodied Chinese, aged 15-59, are still in the majority now. The number of people over 60 is about 20%, slightly more than children under 14. But, according to a forecast compiled by the PRC’s Ministry of Civil Administration, the elderly will already account for a third of the population by 2030.

Will this really lead to a shortage of Chinese workers? Ivan Zuenko told RT that, despite the fact that the Communist Party has no effective way to increase the birth rate, this problem will not undermine China’s ambitions in the 21st century. In part, this is because the country is presently undergoing accelerated robotization.

Lomanov is also confident that this will play an important role as China’s population ages. “Now, they love to discuss how artificial intelligence and modern technologies can be used to provide high-quality care for the elderly,” the expert says.

In addition to automation, China can theoretically deal with a potential shortage of workers in two other ways – by improving the ‘quality’ of its population and by transferring people from villages to cities.

“There is already less and less cheap labor in China, and soon there will be very little at all. The country needs professional training and retraining so that workers become better qualified and paid. So, the course is to move from quantity to quality,” Lomanov said.

Moreover, since rural China is still overpopulated, it can provide cities with an additional 100 to 150 million people, according to some estimates. However, to replace these migrants, it will be necessary to introduce automation in villages more actively – machines, combines, large storage and processing facilities, etc.

“Newcomers will need to be taught to deal with city life and adapt. And their children will need to be provided with a high-quality education if they are not to be put at a disadvantage to their urban peers in terms of both education and social adaptation,” Lomanov notes.

Andrey Karneev, head of the Higher School of Economics’ School of Oriental Studies, agrees with this opinion, noting that the most likely route for internal migrants is from the western provinces to the richer eastern ones. But there is also a chance that China will soon be faced with emigrants from other countries.

“I think China will follow this path. It’s possible that migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh will also be attracted, but it is unlikely that there will be many. In general, China is not yet ready to seriously attract foreigners like the European Union. Moreover, there were recently several episodes in China when local populations demonstrated nervous behavior due to covid, and the Western press wrote a lot about this xenophobia,” he noted.

However, when faced with social problems, China never hesitates to employ modern technologies or active coercion to fulfill the will of the state. So, the PRC will surely find a way to circumvent the country’s fertility problem. Time will tell exactly how.