When Deng Xiaoping launched his market reforms, he famously prescribed that progress should be made in a manner akin to “crossing the river by feeling for stones”.
That strategy of seeing what worked and experimenting cautiously, mind you, was not followed in his administration’s population control policy. Here Deng preferred to plunge right in.
Worried about the number of mouths China had to feed, Deng ordered a draconian measure, namely the One-Child Policy. Over three and a half decades its ramifications have been enormous.
The impact of the policy was the subject of a speech given by Zheng Zhenzhen at the Summer Davos World Economic Forum in Tianjin last month. Zheng predicted that by the end of the century the Chinese population will have declined by over a third of its current size to one billion – i.e. returning to roughly the level it was in the 1980s.
According to the People’s Daily, some experts think Zheng’s projection understates the decline. Citing his overestimate of fertility rates, they point out that the Chinese population may possibly fall to 600 million by 2100.
Whether this is a good thing for the world’s most populated country has been the topic of heated discussion.
A primary concern is how this decline will affect the workforce, which has been a key driver for China’s rapid economic development for more than three decades.
Much of this cheap labour came from rural areas, but a report from the IMF in 2013 concluded that China had already reached its “Lewis Turning Point” – a moment at which the supply of low-cost workers from rural areas dries up, forcing wages to rise.
Zhou Tianyong, the vice director of the Institute for International Strategic Studies, told CBN that these demographic changes will lead to a decline in China’s economic growth as productivity falls. The financial burden will be compounded by the population aging nearly as rapidly as the workforce decreases.
The burden of caring for the elderly will likely fall upon private citizens, many of whom can’t afford the costs.
In WiC318 we reported on the plight of elderly villagers who, in a growing trend, had opted for suicide because they were unable to afford healthcare. In many cases their children were unable or unwilling to help.
Yao Meixiong, a population specialist, told CBN, “In the future life expectancy will increase, the proportion of the population who are over 60 will increase, and the burden of the young to care for the elderly will increase too – leaving them unwilling to have more children. This will create a vicious cycle with the proportion of the population who are old becoming greater and society not only aging but becoming poorer.”
To address the demographic challenge the government last year amended its family planning policy to allow every couple to parent two children, rather than one. The response from the public was lukewarm. Many citizens expressed their reluctance to take on the expense of having a second child, as they claim to be already struggling to support one offspring, as well as their aging parents.
However, there are those who believe that such a dramatic decline would be a blessing. “Population aging certainly is a problem, but it’s really not that serious,” Zhou Jiejian, a senior researcher at Tsinghua University’s Sino-US Relations Institute, told CBN. “A population is not only the workforce but it is also a consumer of resources. In my opinion, it is right for China to only support 600 million people.”
From an environmental point of view that may be right. But the economic adjustment will be huge.
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