For the last few decades, China has been not just one of the world’s strongest economies, but its most populated country. However, recent news suggests that it may have already fallen to second in the race that it has spent decades dominating. The Chinese National Bureau of Statistics announced that in 2022, the country’s population fell by 850,000 to 1.411 billion people, marking the first time the population has decreased since 1961. It is hard to say that this news was unpredictable, considering China’s population structure. Still, this crisis and China’s response will certainly have a large impact on China, its trading partners and its rivals.
China’s accelerated population troubles stem from its former one-child policy, which was put in place in the ‘80s to control population growth at a time when China’s economy was still developing. The goal was to make the economy grow by reducing birth and death rates, giving more workers the freedom to enter the workforce and stay there. Ultimately, the plan succeeded, and China saw rapid economic growth from the ‘80s to the 21st century as the working-age population nearly doubled.
By 2015, China’s GDP had exploded to second-largest in the world, but the workers that had helped China reach this peak 35 years prior had begun retiring, slowing China’s economic growth. To try to rectify the situation, China modified its policy to two children, and again to three in 2021.
However, reversing decades of precedent isn’t so simple. A developed economy means that people are less likely to want to have more kids, even if they are allowed to. More people move to cities for work, where the cost of living grows and the labor market tightens, making children more expensive. To address the demographic crisis, China will need to do more than roll back old legislation. It will also need to attack the effects it previously worked so hard to create. Unfortunately, its quick rise has made many solutions difficult because of drastic changes to culture. Many believe that China’s current plan of economic benefits and increased elderly care doesn’t do enough. They feel China needs to alleviate all of the problems that create concern for childbirth: something that could take years, especially when dealing with such a large population.
This quick rise has also made conventional balancing difficult. Other countries offset unsustainable birth rates with migration. For instance, though the U.S. and U.K. have had fertility rates around 1.6 births per woman, which is below the sustainable level of 2.1 births per woman, their populations have continued to increase, being helped by migrants from the Global South who often come to seek better opportunities. In China, the benefits of economic growth have not been shared to the same degree of other developed economies, as education and health care access are still relatively unevenly distributed. Therefore, many people are still leaving China to find better opportunities elsewhere — China’s net migration rate has been consistently negative since the start of its economic rise. China has been unable to distribute its economic growth so far, hurting its chances at a population rebound.
This should be an important lesson for many other countries, particularly those that rely on China as a trading partner. China isn’t the only country facing population concerns. Japan and South Korea are also experiencing dropping populations. Though China’s population is much larger, slowing birth rates and a decreasing workforce are an international problem. It is important that China find creative solutions that address the root causes of the problem, lest it threaten the international order that its own growth helped create.