China’s Deflating Population: The Economic Marvel in Eclipse?

So China’s population shrank last year. I admit my first instinct was … well, isn’t this a good thing? I mean, during the entire 1960s and 1970s, global discourse misted around how the world population kept growing beyond the finite resources of this world. And how food scarcity and poverty would create a social depression. China, with a population of roughly 1.4 billion people, was specifically a focal point of population reduction strategies. After the widespread catastrophe of the Great Leap Forward, a debilitating social program orchestrated by Mao Zedong in the late 50s, China’s population was on the up and up in the following decade, to the point that the infamous ‘One-Child Policy’ was introduced in the late 70s to inhibit the burden of a growing population – and concomitant poverty. Since then, however, China has dynamically transformed into an economic powerhouse – a factory floor for global manufacturing. And here lies the answer to this population conundrum: Shrinking population in China is a problem now!

According to the data released by the Chinese government last week, China’s population contracted by circa 850,000 people in 2022; with 9.56 million births against 10.41 million deaths, it was the first time in more than half a century that deaths outnumbered births in China. The initial thought would be to blame it on the pandemic. But that would be a blinkered assumption without gauging the stunted birth rate. It was the sixth consecutive year that the number of births fell, down from 10.6 million in 2021, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Many demographers and statisticians warned for years about a population decline on the cards, albeit much later in this decade. This presage was why the government reposed its one-child policy in 2016 and extended the limit to three children in 2021. Local governments offered tax rebates and outright cash handouts to couples having children. The source of anxiety was partly social and partly economic – or maybe socioeconomic is the correct juxtaposition.

China is a rising economic power, the world’s second-largest economy, and the strongest contender to dethrone American supremacy. But in listing all the superlatives, we sometimes forget that China is still a developing economy. Despite its phenomenal evolution from endemic poverty, its average population still earns less than the average earnings in advanced economies. And the shrinking population is a two-pronged issue that could constrict China, like other leading developing economies, into a middle-income trap.

Just by simple inference, we can judge that a declining population is also an aging population. Impressive modernity in China’s healthcare system has led to an increase in life expectancy. Meanwhile, a decades-long hiatus in birth-conducive policies and changed mores of young Chinese couples, often antipathetic to having children altogether, have led to a sharp decline in births. A combination of these factors has invited a conspicuous outcome: Shrinkage in China’s working-age population. In fact, China’s working-age population has been in decline since 2015; according to a government spokesman, it could fall to roughly 700 million (approximately 23%) by 2050. This factor would be particularly problematic for China, which has long been a competitive labor market for manufacturing heavyweights like Apple and Microsoft. But moreover, a bulging elderly population amidst falling tax receipts would pose a challenge to government finances, especially given the comparably underdeveloped social safety net programs in China. Therefore, either taxes ought to be raised sharply or state pensions to old-age dependents would hit the skids – a spartan policy dilemma either way.

We can draw apt comparisons from Japan – the world’s third largest economy – which has notoriously suffered from a lopsided aging population and accompanying anemic economic growth since the asset bubble burst of the 1990s. I mean, China’s real estate market does look like a financial crisis just waiting to happen. But post-boom Japan has tried virtually every bizarre economic strategy – from negative interest rates to yield curve control – yet has failed to spark demand-led inflation. Strangely, however, China has sustained its bustling economy on prohibitive rates of investment rather than consumer demand, which has remained relatively lukewarm due to policymakers’ reluctance to pass the complete scope of economic growth to households. Nonetheless, a contracting labor force would perhaps accelerate the exodus of manufacturing from China unless the government finds alternatives to sustain China’s unrivaled productivity levels.

We could blame China’s ‘zero Covid’ policy for strangling economic growth. It is no surprise that China’s economy grew by a modest 3% in 2022, its slowest rate in nearly four decades, barring 2020. Intermittent lockdowns and pedantic mass testing regimes cast a pall over economic activities. And higher interest rates imposed by the Federal Reserve and other central banks have dampened global demand and diluted appetite for Chinese imports. According to government officials, year-on-year Chinese exports fell by 9.9% in December. While an economic turnaround is widely expected later this year, a falling working-age population; a skyward old-age dependency ratio; and the ongoing trade tussle with the United States could cost China many more decades to supersede the American edge. However, China has been an iridescent success story, an economic miracle of sorts. And therefore, if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could somehow prioritize economy over national security; social reforms over governmental control; and collaboration over confrontation, I reckon China can again defy the odds and achieve its dream.

Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
The author is a political and economic analyst. He focuses on geopolitical policymaking and international affairs. Syed has written extensively on fintech economy, foreign policy, and economic decision making of the Indo-Pacific and Asian region.