rightChina is the world's most populous country, with about 1.34 billion people (2010 census), but the birthrate has been falling significantly from more than 20 per 1,000 people in 1990 to about 12 today. . There is an old joke that goes: “In China when they say you are one in a million there are a thousand just like you." There are almost twice as many people in China as there are in European Union and the United States combined. India is the only other country that has reached the one billion mark. Together China and India account for a third of the world’s population and 60 percent of Asia's population. India is expected to have more people than China by the year 2030 as a result of having a less successful family planning policy than China.

China’s population surpassed 1.34 billion in 2010 according to census figures released in April 2011. This is 5.9 percent more people than the 1.27 billion counted in the 2000 census but was lower than the 1.4 billion population predicted by some demographers. Growth was slower in 2010 than the previous year, leading some experts to suggest that the one-child policy might be eased. The 2000 census counted 1.295 billion people. Between 1990 and 2000 the total population increased by 11.7 percent.

About 94 percent of China's population lives on approximately 46 percent of land. The majority of China's people live in the fertile, humid lowlands of the east, with about a third of China’s people living along China's coast. The major population centers include the North China Plain and Shandong Peninsula (an area smaller than Texas with more people than the U.S.); the Sichuan basin, (a Michigan-size area with 100 million people); and the Yangtze River area (where 150 million people live). The deserts and highlands in the west make up half of China's territory but are home to only 6 percent of the population. . Based on 2000 census data, the provinces with the largest populations were Henan (91.2 million), Shandong (89.9 million), Sichuan (82.3 million, not including Chongqing municipality, which was formerly part of Sichuan Province), and Guangdong (85.2 million). The smallest were Qinghai (4.8 million) and Tibet (2.6 million). In the long term, China faces increasing urbanization; according to predictions, nearly 70 percent of the population will live in urban areas by 2035.

Good Websites and Sources: China Population Information and Research Center cpirc.org. ; United Nations Population Fund unescap.org ; Trends in Chinese Demography afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Institute of Population and Labor Economics cass.cn ; Population Trends (PDF file) prb.org ; Links in this Website: ONE-CHILD POLICY IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; BIRTH CONTROL IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; PREFERENCE FOR BOYS Factsanddetails.com/China ; THE BRIDE SHORTAGE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China


Population Statistics in China

According to the 2010 census, the number of people over 60 grew to 13.26 percent of the population, up 2.98 percent from 2000, and the number of people under 14 declined to 16 percent of the population, down 6.29 percent from 2000. A census report issued by Beijing attributed the change in age composition to improved health and medicine, low fertility levels and rapid economic development.

Nearly two-thirds of the Chinese population (750 million people) is under the age of 35; 92 percent are Han Chinese; and 75 percent (900 million people) are rural peasants or migrants (compared to 40 percent in most developing countries and 20 percent in developed countries).

In the year 2000 Shanghai had a population of 20 million people; Beijing and Tianjin had 15 million each; and seven other cities had a population of more than 5 million each. More than 100 Chinese cities have a population of more than 1 million.

In 1949 crude death rates were probably higher than 30 per 1,000, and the average life expectancy was only 32 years. Beginning in the early 1950s, mortality steadily declined; it continued to decline through 1978 and remained relatively constant through 1987. One major fluctuation was reported in a computer reconstruction of China's population trends from 1953 to 1987 produced by the United States Bureau of the Census. The computer model showed that the crude death rate increased dramatically during the famine years associated with the Great Leap Forward, resulting in approximately 30 million deaths above the expected level. [Source: Library of Congress]

Population density in 1983

Population Density and Distribution in China

Population density: 362 people square mile (compared to 4 per square mile in Mongolia, 72 in the United States, and 1,188 in South Korea). The population density of China is three times the world average of 91 people per square mile. In Shanghai, China's largest city, there are almost 100,000 people per square mile. Only twelve cities on earth, including China's Shenyang, Tianjin and Chengdu, have higher population densities.

China’s overall population density was was 135 persons per square kilometer in 2003. The most densely populated provinces are in the east: Jiangsu (712 persons per square kilometer), Shangdong (587 persons per square kilometer), and Henan (546 persons per square kilometer). Shanghai was the most densely populated municipality at 2,646 persons per square kilometer. The least densely populated areas are in the west, with Tibet having the lowest density at only 2 persons per square kilometer. Sixty-two percent of the population lived in rural areas in 2004, while 38 percent lived in urban settings.

Population density in China has traditionally been only about one-third that of Japan and less than that of many other countries in Asia and in Europe. The overall figure, however, conceals major regional variations and the high person-land ratio in densely populated areas. In the 11 provinces, special municipalities, and autonomous regions along the southeast coast, population density is much higher than elsewhere. Broadly speaking, the population is concentrated in China Proper, east of the mountains and south of the Great Wall. The most densely populated areas includes the Yangtze Valley (of which the delta region was the most populous), Sichuan Basin, North China Plain, Pearl River Delta, and the industrial area around the city of Shenyang in the northeast. [Source: Library of Congress]

Population is most sparse in the mountainous, desert, and grassland regions of the northwest and southwest. In Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, portions are completely uninhabited, and only a few sections have populations more dense than ten people per square kilometer. The Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet autonomous regions and Gansu and Qinghai provinces comprise 55 percent of the country's land area but contain only about five percent of its population.

Global Environmental Impact of China’s Population

Kenneth R. Weiss wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The Chinese are living better overall: consuming more food, energy and goods than ever. One-fourth of the population — the equivalent of everyone in the United States — has entered the middle class. The U.S. consumes much more per person. But with a population four times larger, China has a greater collective appetite — and a greater ecological impact — than any other country. [Source: Kenneth R. Weiss, Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2012 /=/]

“The compounding forces of economic and population growth are a source of increasing concern to scientists. An international team of 1,300 researchers organized by the United Nations concluded that evidence points to "abrupt and potentially irreversible changes" in ecosystems in the next few decades, including mass extinctions and rapid climate change. How this drama plays out is not merely China's concern. Because of the nation's sheer size, the rest of the world has an enormous stake in the outcome. "To solve China's problems is to solve the world's problems," said Yu Xuejun, a director-general in the country's National Population and Family Planning Commission. /=/

“Tendrils of soot extend across the Pacific. On some days, almost 25 percent of the pollutants in the air above Los Angeles originated in China, the Environmental Protection Agency has found. Under international pressure, China has cracked down on some of its dirtiest plants, mainly to reduce soot or pollutants like sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain and aggravates asthma and heart disease. /=/

“China relies on coal to meet about two-thirds of its energy needs. Despite major investments in solar, wind and nuclear energy, coal consumption continues to climb. Although China has the third-largest reserves in the world, it is reaching around the world for more. It overtook Japan this year as the world's largest coal importer, drawing mostly from Indonesia and Australia. Its imports are expected to double by 2015. Those trends are worrisome to climate scientists, who say that in order to avoid a potentially catastrophic rise in global temperatures, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions must be cut in half by 2050. /=/

“For that to happen, China's emissions would have to peak by 2020, said Nobuo Tanaka, former director of the Paris-based International Energy Agency, which advises governments on energy issues. But by China's own projections, its output will rise at least 50 percent from current levels before peaking around 2035. Chinese leaders say that capping emissions would cripple industrial growth and urban development in a country that still has 100 million poor people.” /=/

Low Urban Fertility Rate in China

The 2010 national census showed that the average birthrate for a Chinese household was 1.181, with the rate lower in cities and higher in rural areas. Some scholars say that number is extraordinarily low, and the real figure is probably a bit higher. According to estimates by the United Nations, the total fertility rate (the average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime) from 2005 to 2010 was 1.63 on average. The Chinese government figure of 1.18 in the 2010 census is lower than the 1.4 level in Japan, while in such urban areas as Beijing and Shanghai, it even dips below 1.0. [Source: Kenichi Yoshida and Takahiro Suzuki, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 31, 2013; Edward Wong, New York Times, September 26, 2013]

Bloomberg reported: “China faces an urban shift that will shrink the pool of factory workers who sustain economic growth and expand the ranks of the elderly, pushing up health-care and pension costs. Higher education levels, a focus on careers, and greater expectations are causing city-dwellers to marry later and have fewer children. The falling birth rate, exacerbated by China’s three- decade-old one-child policy, will cut the number of 15- to 24- year-olds, the mainstay of factories, by 27 percent to 164 million by 2025, the United Nations estimates. In that time, those over the age of 65 will surge 78 percent to 195 million. [Source: Bloomberg News, May 31, 2012]

Shanghai’s fertility rate -- the number of children the average woman in the city will bear over her lifetime -- was 0.79 in the year ended October 2010, about half the national level, government statistics show. That compares with the 1.42 rate for Japan and 2.08 in the U.S. [Ibid]

China’s labor force is already shrinking. The number of people aged between 15 and 64 declined by 0.1 percentage point last year to 74.4 percent of the population, the first contraction in 10 years, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. That’s likely to increase costs for companies in China, deterring investment and weighing on an economy that may expand at the slowest pace in 13 years in 2012. Wages for urban workers at private enterprises climbed 12 percent last year to 24,556 yuan ($3,852), the National Bureau of Statistics said on May 29. [Ibid]

Population Growth in China

Population growth (2007): 0.59 percent. China accounts for 11.4 percent of the world's population increase. The population of China is greater than the entire world 150 years ago. Every year the population of China increases by 14 million people (the number of people in Texas or Chile). Each decade it increases by about 130 million (more than the population of Japan). About 39,000 new people are added everyday.

Average number of children per woman: 1.75 (compared to 1.5 in Germany and 7.0 in Ethiopia). The average fertility rate in rural areas is 1.98; in urban area it is 1.22. As a result of that policy, China successfully achieved its goal of a more stable and much-reduced fertility 10 rate; in 1971 women had an average of 5.4 children versus an estimated 1.7 children in 2004. Nevertheless, the population continues to grow, and people want more children. There is also a serious gender imbalance. Census data obtained in 2000 revealed that 119 boys were born for every 100 girls, and among China’s “floating population” the ratio was as high as 128:100. These situations led Beijing in July 2004 to ban selective abortions of female fetuses. Ultrasound tests cost as little as $15.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau the population of China is expected to reach its peak of 1.4 billion around 2026 and begin shrinking after that. According to a model bu Wang Fend, a demographer at the University of California at Irvine, if current populations trend hold China’s population could shrink by almost half to 750 million. Others think the population of China is expected to peak at around 1.5 billion around 2033 when China is expected to be overtaken by India as the world’s most populous country. Others say the population is expected to start declining around 2042.

China’s population is increasing, even with the controls on family size. What is driving the growth is that hundreds of millions of Chinese are still in their reproductive years. On such a huge base, even one or two children per couple adds large numbers---an effect known as population momentum. The fertility level is expected to drop below replacement level soon. Already the population of Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and other cities would be declining were it not for the influx of migrants. Some Chinese demographers hope that China can stabilize its population and then "allow birth control and natural mortality" to reduce the population to 700 million, considered the ideal number for a nation of China’s size.

Large numbers of births occur during lucky or important years. In the year 2000, over 36 million “millennium babies” were born, nearly double the previous years. Births also spiked in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, and years deemed auspicious by the Chinese calendar (See Superstitions). The trend puts pressure on hospitals, schools and job markets when large numbers are born, begin school and look for jobs at the same time

It is unusual for rural women over the age of 35 to have children. Rural Chinese women on average enter menopause five years earlier than Western women because of lifestyle, genetic and dietary factors Wang Yijue of the Sichuan Reproductive Health Research Center told the Los Angeles Times.

History of China’s Population Growth

China has been the world’s most populous nation for many centuries. One 16th century Portuguese trader wrote, the numbers of people in China were "everywhere so great that out of a tree...swarm a number of children, where a man would not have thought to have found any one at all."

When China took its first post-1949 census in 1953, the population stood at 582 million; by the fifth census in 2000, the population had almost doubled, reaching 1.2 billion. China’s population hit 1 billion in 1982. China officially recognized the birth of its 1.3 billionth citizen (not counting Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan) on January 5, 2005. In 2005 the population grew by 8.1 million, or 0.63 percent. China is projected to have 1.39 billion citizens by 2015, up from 1.32 billion at the end of 2008. About 23 percent of all the people on earth live in China. Every year 20 million infants are born.

China’s fast-growing population was a major policy matter for its leaders in the mid-twentieth century, so that in the early 1970s, the government implemented a stringent one-child birth-control policy. Additionally, life expectancy has soared, and China now has an increasingly aging population; it is projected that 11.8 percent of the population in 2020 will be 65 years of age and older. Based on 2006 estimates, China’s age structure is 0---14 years of age-: 20.8 percent; 15---64 years: 71.4 percent, and 65 years and older---7.7 percent. Estimates made in 2006 indicate a birthrate of nearly 13.3 births per 1,000 and a death rate of 6.9 per 1,000. In 2006 life expectancy at birth was estimated at 74.5 years for women and 70.9 for men, or 72.6 years overall. The infant mortality rate was estimated at 23.1 per 1,000 live births overall (25.9 per 1,000 for females and 20.6 for males).

Kenneth R. Weiss wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “China's massive population is a legacy of Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung, who strove to increase the ranks of the Red Army by encouraging large families and banning imports of contraceptives and declaring their use a "capitalist plot." In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a series of famines claimed tens of millions of lives. The suffering left an enduring awareness that the country couldn't sustain unlimited population growth. [Source: Kenneth R. Weiss, Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2012]

As Mao's power waned in the 1970s, other Chinese leaders applied the brakes. Free contraceptives were made widely available. Couples were encouraged to marry later, wait longer to have children and have fewer. In less than a decade, fertility plummeted from nearly six children per woman to fewer than three. To drive the birthrate down further, Deng Xiaoping imposed the "one-child policy" in 1979. It led to mandated abortions and other abuses by zealous enforcers. Today, there are many exceptions to the rule: Rural couples and ethnic minorities, for instance, can have two or more children. Although compulsory abortions have been forbidden, families must pay steep fines for having more children than allowed. [Ibid]

Population Problems in China

With such a huge population, every social problem is magnified. If 10 percent of the population in China is unemployed, for example, the number of people out of work is equal to half the population of the United States. A migrant from Henan told journalist Howard French, “I’m frightened for my son’s future, China’s biggest problem is the population. There are just too many of us, and the competition for opportunity is murderous.” [Source: Howard W. French, New York Times, August 28, 2009]

Already the strains of over population have caused severe water shortages in places with high rainfall and produced housing shortages in cities where the average person lives in the space the size of a small closet (12 square feet per person).

The economy in China is booming in part because 70 percent of the population is of working age. This will change dramatically as the population ages and fewer children become adults because of the old child policy.

The Chinese word population is made up of two characters one for “people” and one for “open mouth.” See Problems in Feeding the World's Largest Nation. Agriculture, Economics

History of Population Control in China

The Chinese have made great strides in reducing their population through birth control. But that has not always been the case. Mao did nothing to reduce China's expanding population, which doubled under his leadership. He believed that birth control was a capitalist plot to weaken the country and make it vulnerable to attack. He also liked to say, "every mouth comes with two hands attached." For a while Mao urged Chinese to have lots of children to support his “human wave” defense policy when he feared attack from the United States and the Soviet Union.

Soon after taking power in 1949 Mao declared: “Of all things in the world, people are the most precious.” He condemned birth control and banned the import of contraceptives. He then proceeded to kill lots of people through vicious crackdowns on landlords and counter-revolutionaries, through the use of human-wave warfare in North Korea and through failed experiments like the Great Leap Forward.

Over time the liabilities of a large, rapidly growing population soon became apparent. For one year, starting in August 1956, vigorous propaganda support was given to the Ministry of Public Health's mass birth control efforts. These efforts, however, had little impact on fertility. After the interval of the Great Leap Forward, Chinese leaders again saw rapid population growth as an obstacle to development, and their interest in birth control revived. In the early 1960s, propaganda, somewhat more muted than during the first campaign, emphasized the virtues of late marriage. Birth control offices were set up in the central government and some provinciallevel governments in 1964. The second campaign was particularly successful in the cities, where the birth rate was cut in half during the 1963-66 period. The chaos of the Cultural Revolution brought the program to a halt, however. [Source: Library of Congress]

In the 1970s Mao began to come around to the threats posed by too many people. He began encouraged a policy of “late, long and few” and coined the slogan: “One is good, two is OK, three is too many.” In the years after his death, China began experimenting with the one-child policy. In 1972 and 1973 the party mobilized its resources for a nationwide birth control campaign administered by a group in the State Council. Committees to oversee birth control activities were established at all administrative levels and in various collective enterprises. This extensive and seemingly effective network covered both the rural and the urban population. In urban areas public security headquarters included population control sections. In rural areas the country's "barefoot doctors" distributed information and contraceptives to people's commun members. By 1973 Mao Zedong was personally identified with the family planning movement, signifying a greater leadership commitment to controlled population growth than ever before. Yet until several years after Mao's death in 1976, the leadership was reluctant to put forth directly the rationale that population control was necessary for economic growth and improved living standards. [Ibid]

The "Later, Longer, Fewer" policy that is the cornerstone of China's birth control program was put into effect in 1976, around the same time that Mao died. It encouraged couples to get married later, wait longer to have children, and have fewer children, preferably one. The program forced married couples to sign statements that obligated them to one child. Women who had abortions were given free vacations.

See One Child Policy

Birth Patterns Before the One-Child Policy

According to Chinese government statistics, the crude birth rate followed five distinct patterns from 1949 to 1982. It remained stable from 1949 to 1954, varied widely from 1955 to 1965, experienced fluctuations between 1966 and 1969, dropped sharply in the late 1970s, and increased from 1980 to 1981. Between 1970 and 1980, the crude birth rate dropped from 36.9 per 1,000 to 17.6 per 1,000. The government attributed this dramatic decline in fertility to the wan xi shao (later marriages, longer intervals between births, and fewer children) birth control campaign. [Source: Library of Congress]

“However, elements of socioeconomic change, such as increased employment of women in both urban and rural areas and reduced infant mortality (a greater percentage of surviving children would tend to reduce demand for additional children), may have played some role. To the dismay of authorities, the birth rate increased in both 1981 and 1982 to a level of 21 per 1,000, primarily as a result of a marked rise in marriages and first births. The rise was an indication of problems with the one-child policy of 1979. Chinese sources, however, indicated that the birth rate decreased to 17.8 in 1985 and remained relatively constant thereafter. [Ibid]

“In urban areas, the housing shortage may have been at least partly responsible for the decreased birth rate. Also, the policy in force during most of the 1960s and the early 1970s of sending large numbers of high school graduates to the countryside deprived cities of a significant proportion of persons of childbearing age and undoubtedly had some effect on birth rates. [Ibid]

“Primarily for economic reasons, rural birth rates tended to decline less than urban rates. The right to grow and sell agricultural products for personal profit and the lack of an oldage welfare system were incentives for rural people to produce many children, especially sons, for help in the fields and for support in old age. Because of these conditions, it is unclear to what degree propaganda and education improvements had been able to erode traditional values favoring large families

20080222-people by age group 1148055065 BBC.gif

Graying of China

Another consequence of a low birth rate and one-child policy is an increasingly older population. China’s elderly population is growing rapidly while the number of young adults is shrinking, a huge demographic shift that has been building for decades. While the elderly still make up a relatively small share of China’s population compared with some Western nations, demographers predict that the proportion of elderly will nearly double from 2008 to 2025. By 2050, they say, one in four Chinese will be 65 or older.

The 2010 census shows that people over 60 years of age account for 13.26 percent of the populace, compared to 10.33 percent in 2000. By 2040, this figure is projected to spike to a stunning 28 percent. A 2010 study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) forecast that by 2030, the proportion of the population that is over 65 will exceed even that of Japan, which has the grayest population in Asia. "By 2050, Chinese society will enter into a phase of severe agedness," the CASS said. [Source: Willy Lam, China Brief, Jamestown Foundation, May 6, 2011]

A major theme of the 12th Five-Year Plan on Economic and Social Development released in March 2011 was boosting social-welfare benefits, including those for senior citizens. Yet, it is doubtful whether adequate resources can be provided particularly for old rural residents, who traditionally rely on their children and grandchildren to take care of post-retirement needs. [Ibid]

China is quickly fulfilling the oft-repeated adage that "China is becoming old before it becomes rich." China’s demographic dividend---a reference to speedy economic expansion due to an increase of the proportion of Chinese who are working---is forecast by official economists to decline sharply from around 2013. And by 2039, less than two Chinese taxpayers may have to look after one retiree.

As of 2005 about 143 million people (more than 10 percent of the population) were over 60. This is more than population of all but about ten countries. The rate is expected to increase at a rate of 100 million a decade. By 2050, there are expected to be 438 million elderly, or one out of four Chinese, compared with one out of ten in 1980. By 2020 the number of people between 20 and 24 is expected to be half of the 124 million in 2010. During the same time period the number of people over 60 is expected to jump from 12 percent of the population---167 million people---to 17 percent. By 2050 China will have more than 100 million over 80.

In Shanghai, people over 60 already make 21.6 percent of the population and are expected to make up 34 percent in 2020. Similar trend are occurring across the country, especially in urban areas where the working-age population is expect to peak in about 2015.

Nicholas Eberstad wrote in Far Eastern Economic Review, “According to the UNPD's projections, China's 65-plus age group currently numbers around 110 million. Over the coming generation, this group is set to rise to 280 million---growing at a pace of almost 3.8 percent per annum. By 2035, nearly one in five Chinese will be 65 or older, constituting a staggering 280 million senior citizens. The aging situation is likely to be even more acute in the Chinese countryside due to the ongoing migration of younger, rural-born workers to towns and cities. According to the projections of a team of demographers led by Professor Zeng Yi of Peking University, China's rural areas are probably already grayer than its cities---and the difference will grow starker every year. Prof. Zeng's team projects that by 2035 over one in four rural residents would be 65 or older.” [Source: Nicholas Eberstad, Far Eastern Economic Review, December 2009. Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and is senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research]

Consequences of Graying Population

An aging population means that relatively small group of young people has to economically support a large number of elderly people. Health care and pension costs will soar as elderly people make up a larger portion of the population. There will be a labor shortage as the demands by the elderly exceed the ability to young people to meet them. The ratio of working people to retirees is dropping quickly. Immigrant labor will be needed to make up the shortfall.

China is the first nation to have to cope with a population that is getting older before it becomes rich. The elderly population is expected to mushroom before the economy and society have the capability to deal with the problem. Already, China is racking up health care and pension costs it can not afford as people born in the 1950s and 60s begin retiring. By 2035 and 2040 the peak of the aging problem China will face a social security deficient of $128 billion.

Nicholas Eberstad wrote in Far Eastern Economic Review, “What are the implications of this gray population explosion? For benchmarks, we might consider Japan, which ranks as the world's most aged society. In Japan today, the 65-plus proportion of the country's total population is just over 22 percent. In other words, rural China will be substantially more elderly than any population known to date within a generation.” [Source: Nicholas Eberstad, Far Eastern Economic Review, December 2009. Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and is senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research]

Despite three decades of dizzying economic growth, rural China remains terribly poor. Average income levels in the Chinese countryside are reportedly less than one third as high as that of Chinese cities. Japan's per capita income level today is maybe 15 or 20 times higher than in rural China. One need not be a Sino-pessimist to suggest that Chinese society will have to cope with its coming age burden on vastly lower income levels than Japan or today's graying Western societies. [Ibid]

Who will care for this looming wave of retirees? Certainly it will not be the country's existing pension system. That irregular and arbitrary patchwork construct consists mainly of special arrangements for employees of certain municipalities and state enterprises, covering only a fraction of the country's workforce. Yet even these existing programs are manifestly unsound from an actuarial standpoint. Whereas the net present value of the U.S. social security system's unfunded liabilities are equivalent to America's total output for about one third of a year, the estimated liabilities of China's system are in excess of 100 percent of GDP. The existing social security system is doomed to collapse under its own weight. [Ibid]

The traditional Chinese social security system has in fact always been the family, with family members looking after their elderly in countryside and city alike. But with the collapse of Chinese fertility below replacement levels in the 1990s, the Chinese family has become a much frailer support system. In Confucian societies, the first line of support has always been the son. In the 1990s, practically every Chinese woman approaching retirement age had at least one son to turn to: in that time, all but 8 percent of Chinese women who were reaching the age of 60 had given birth to at least one male child. By 2025 the corresponding proportion of older women who have borne no sons will increase to about 30 percent, meaning that one in three elderly couples will have no sons as they head toward retirement age. [Ibid]

For many of these individuals, eking out sustenance in old age may amount to a begging game, whereby they beseech the families of their daughters and sons-in-law to divert resources that would otherwise be committed to the son-in-law's parents. Yet even for those who do have a son, support from one's progeny will require that the traditional ethos of filial piety holds firm; a presumption that may no longer be taken for granted in a country whose lifestyles and mores are undergoing rapid change. [Ibid]

Within China today, most people have become accustomed to the notion of the country's inevitable rise in the decades ahead. However, the vulnerabilities of its aging population also cast much of China on a course of increasing peril. [Ibid]

Some demographers view a population decline as a positive things, saying it will reduce food and water shortages and curb pollution.

See Elderly

End of Labor Force Growth in China

If China ends up with too many old people and too few young workers it could slow economic growth. In the worst case the government and families will have to tap into savings to take care of the elderly, reducing funds for investments and driving up interest rates. As the working-age population shrinks, labor cost will rise. China’s aging population could undermine the advantages of low-cost labor by the middle of the 21st century. In 2007 China had six people in the workforce for every retiree but this ratio while fall to 2:1 by 2050.

Nicholas Eberstad wrote in Far Eastern Economic Review, “China's explosive economic growth between 1979 and 2008 was historically unprecedented in pace, duration, and scale. A repeat performance over the coming generation is most unlikely for one simple reason: the demographic inputs that facilitated this amazing first act are no longer available. [Source: Nicholas Eberstad, Far Eastern Economic Review, December 2009. Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and is senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research]

Over the 1980-2005 generation, China's working-age population---defined here as the 15- to 64-year-old group---grew by about 2 percent per annum. Yet over the coming generation, China's prospective manpower growth rate is zero. By the “medium variant” projections of the United Nations Population Division (UNPD), the 15- to 64-year-old group will be roughly 25 million persons smaller in 2035 than it is today, and by 2035 it would be dropping at a tempo of about 0.7 percent per year. In fact, by the U.S. Census Bureau's reckonings, China's conventionally defined manpower will peak by 2016 and will thereafter commence an accelerating decline. Though these forecasts concern events far in the future, they are more than mere conjecture; virtually everyone who will be part of China's 15- to 64-year-old-group in the year 2024 is alive today. If current childbearing trajectories continue, by the UNPD's reckoning, each new generation will be at least 20 percent smaller than the one before it. [Ibid]

These numbers alone would augur ill for the continuation of rapid economic growth in China, but the situation is even more unfavorable when one considers the shifts in the composition of China's working-age population. In modern societies, it is the youngest cohorts of the labor force who have the best health, the highest levels of education, the most up-to-date technical skills---and thus the greatest potential to contribute to productivity. In China, however, this cohort has been shrinking for a generation, and stands to shrink still further, in both relative and absolute terms. In 1985, 15- to 29-year-olds accounted for 47 percent of China's working age population. Today that proportion is down to about 34 percent of the workforce. By Census Bureau projections, 20 years from now it will have fallen to just barely 26 percent of China's conventionally defined labor force. [Ibid]

The only reason China's working age population will not shrink more rapidly over the next few decades is because of an enormous coming wave of laborers in the 50- to 64-year-old age range. This group looks to swell by over 100 million between 2009 and 2029, growing from 22 percent of the working population to roughly 32 percent. The educational profile of this group is far more elementary than is generally appreciated: according to official Chinese census data, 47 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds have not completed primary schooling. [Ibid]

With this coming “age wave,” the structure of China's labor force will be inverted. A generation ago, there were nearly three times as many younger workers as older workers. Today there are half again as many younger workers as older ones. Two decades from now, the Census Bureau projects 120 older prospective workers for every 100 younger ones (at which point the situation may then stabilize, depending upon fertility trends). It's not exactly an ideal transformation in the labor force structure if one is aiming to maintain rapid rates of economic growth. [Ibid]

The situation might be easier for economic planners to cope with if China were still a nation with an abundance of underemployed labor. But policy makers in Beijing can no longer count on these once huge reserves. Instead, leading Chinese economists---among them Professor Cai Fang, director of the Institute of Population and Labor Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences---argue that the Chinese economy has already reached a turning point where those seemingly unlimited reserves of rural labor have actually been tapped out, and any future increase in demand for labor will only be supplied by increasing wages. [Ibid]

Shrinking Labor Population and Rising Elderly Population

China is facing a critical shortage of laborers caused by 30 years of restricting family size. In 2012 the working-age population of China shrank for the first time, threatening a mainland economic miracle built upon a pool of surplus labor. China's working population between ages 15 and 59 peaked at 941 million in 2011, but declined to about 937 million in 2012. [Source: Kenichi Yoshida and Takahiro Suzuki, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 31, 2013]

The Chinese birthrate has plunged to 1.18 births per woman, considered too low for the population to replenish itself. Many analysts say the one-child policy has shrunk China's labor pool, hurting economic growth. China could be the first country in the world to get old before it gets rich. The drop of China's working-age population has added to concerns about how the country will provide for its 194 million elderly citizens, who now make up 14.3 percent of the population, a nearly three-fold increase from 1982. [Source: AFP, November 16, 2013]

From 2010 to 2030 China's working-age population—those ages 15 to 64—is expected to lose 67 million workers—more than the entire population of France—according to United Nations projections. Over that period, the elderly population is projected to soar from a tenth to a quarter of the population, according to U.N. data. China's population, the world's largest, rose to 1.34 billion in 2010, according to census data. It had been projected to peak at around 1.4 billion in 10 years but decline for the next 30. [Source: Laurie Burkitt, Wall Street Journal, November 15, 2013 <=>]

China’s once cheap and plentiful pool of workers is becoming more scarce and expensive; the labor force declined by 3.45 million in 2012 and is expected to decrease by 10 million per year starting in 2025. The shrinking pool of workers will be forced to support an expanding population of senior citizens -- 200 million in 2013 -- that is expected to arrive at 360 million (more than the current U.S. population) in 2030. Meanwhile, over the next two decades, pension liabilities may reach more than $10 trillion.

Consequences of a Shrinking Labor Force in China

Chun Han Wong of the Wall Street Journal wrote: China’s shrinking pool of working-age people – ages between 16 and 59 would impose growing burdens on the country’s pension system. People aged 60 and above are projected to make up nearly 39 percent of the country’s population by 2050, up from roughly 15 percent currently. Currently, three working people are supporting each retiree, but that ratio will tumble to about 1.3 workers for each retiree by 2050—a trend that would put further strains on China’s public finances and social-security system. [Source: Chun Han Wong, China Real Time, Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2015 <>]

Laurie Burkitt wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Wang Feng, a demographer at Fudan University in Shanghai, and other population experts have argued for several years that the government was running out of time to change course. Birthrates had already fallen, in some cities to levels below that needed to replace the current population. If left unchecked, they said, the labor force would shrink, pressuring wages and inflation, and fewer workers would be taking care of a growing elderly population, potentially creating a pension shortfall. [Source: Laurie Burkitt, Wall Street Journal, November 15, 2013 <=>]

“Companies manufacturing or operating in China have already seen their profits diminish as the supply of labor—seen as China's most competitive advantage in attracting foreign companies to its turf—tightens, pushing up wages. The predicament has caused experts to wonder if the world's No. 2 economy would grow old before it gets rich. Japan's long slump beginning in the 1990s occurred after a similar dip in demographics, though Japan was far wealthier at the time than China is currently and was able to absorb the slowdown in growth. Population experts said the latest move, while positive, fails to fully steer China away from the demographic crisis. "The entire policy should have been abolished," said Liang Zhongtang, a demographer from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. <=>

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Concerned about the economic effects of a smaller labor pool and a rapidly aging population, the government in late 2013 relaxed its long-standing "one-child" policy, allowing more families to have a second son or daughter. But so far, a smaller-than-expected number of couples have applied for permission to expand their brood. "China's second-child push falls short," the People's Daily newspaper said in a recent headline, noting that authorities had anticipated 2 million applications in 2014 but received fewer than half that number. Still, the paper quoted a government spokesman as calling the numbers "in line with expectations," in part because different provinces relaxed their policies at different times in 2014. Many observers believe the easing of the one-child policy will have little effect. Zheng Zizhen, former director of Guangdong Social Sciences, who is familiar with population issues, is one such skeptic. "The issue now is not about having children, but about not having children," he said. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, January 19, 2015 \*\]

Slowed Population Growth and China’s Future Economy

Nicholas Eberstad wrote in Far Eastern Economic Review, “What will become of Chinese economic performance when this key element of the country's growth formula is radically altered? One can of course imagine compensating social adaptations, such as a more reliable rule of law or deeper affinities to friends. But if history is any guide, such social adaptations are often slow and halting, and there is no guarantee that they will emerge in time to remedy the loss of social capital that is taking place before our eyes. [Ibid]

In detailing China's looming demographic troubles, I do not mean to suggest that continued, even substantial, material progress is not in the cards for China in the decades ahead. The Chinese economy still has tremendous opportunities for further growth. At the same time, we should not underestimate the magnitude of the demographic difficulties with which China will have to contend in the years ahead. Unfortunately, those difficulties do not yet seem to have been adequately recognized, either by the international community or by Chinese leaders themselves. [Ibid]

There is more than a little irony in this situation for the masters of today's Chinese economic miracle. In their autocratic, but seemingly pragmatic quest to escape the poverty that burdened China in the past, they have helped conjure up demographic demons that will bedevil the country for decades to come. Deng Xiaoping is currently remembered for his steadfast opposition to Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward. But history may ultimately remember Deng---and his successors---for unleashing a population control program whose toll on the Chinese people would put the Great Leap Forward in the shade. [Ibid]

One-Child Policy and China’s Ageing Population

According to The Economist: But the policy has almost certainly reduced fertility below the level to which it would have fallen anyway. As a result, China has one of the world’s lowest “dependency ratios”, with roughly three economically active adults for each dependent child or old person. It has therefore enjoyed a larger “demographic dividend” (extra growth as a result of the high ratio of workers to dependents) than its neighbours. But the dividend is near to being cashed out. Between 2000 and 2010, the share of the population under 14---future providers for their parents’slumped from 23 percent to 17 percent. China now has too few young people, not too many. It has around eight people of working age for every person over 65. By 2050 it will have only 2.2. Japan, the oldest country in the world now, has 2.6. China is getting old before it has got rich. [Source: The Economist July 21, 2011]

Leo Lewis wrote in the Times of London, “China may be forced to reconsider its one-child policy after census data revealed that rural-to-urban migration and rising life expectancies have led to a rapidly ageing population. Even though China’s population grew by 73.9 million people to 1.34 billion between 2000 and 2010 the number of young as a proportion of the population aged under 14 contracted by 6.3 per cent, while the over-65s grew by 1.91 per cent. [Source: Leo Lewis, Times of London, April 29, 2011]

Analysts believe that the effects on the economy have already begun to be felt and will become more pronounced as the labour force shrinks and the burden of elderly care grows heavier.Wang Feng, a demographics expert at the Brookings-Tsinghua Centre for Public Policy in Beijing, said that the fertility rate of 1.5 children per couple was "alarmingly low". He said that the 40 million people added to the ranks of the over-60s were "only the beginning of an accelerating process" and that the ageing of the population would become more serious.

Analysts say that a sharp fall in the number of young will damage the economy. A shrinking young population and workforce are possible sources of inflation and the social destabilisation that the Government dreads. Factory owners in the workshop cities of coastal China describe a shortage of workers and the accompanying cycle of wage hikes necessary to retain staff. The size and youth of the Chinese labour force have been decisive factors in the country's breakneck economic expansion.

According to the Economist: “Demography is like a supertanker; it takes decades to turn around. It will pose some of China’s biggest problems. The old leadership is wedded to the one-child policy, but the new leadership, can think afresh. It should end this abomination as soon as it takes power.”

Image Sources: Maps, University of Texas; Census poster, Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/; People by Age Group, BBC

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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