The most surprising demographic crisis
A new census raises questions about the future of China’s one-child policy
DOES China have enough people? The question might seem absurd. The country has long been famous both for having the world’s largest population and for having taken draconian measures to restrain its growth. Though many people, Chinese and outsiders alike, have looked aghast at the brutal and coercive excesses of the one-child policy, there has also often been a grudging acknowledgment that China needed to do something to keep its vast numbers in check.
But new census figures bolster claims made in the past few years that China is suffering from a demographic problem of a different sort: too low a birth rate. The latest numbers, released on April 28th and based on the nationwide census conducted last year, show a total population for mainland China of 1.34 billion. They also reveal a steep decline in the average annual population growth rate, down to 0.57% in 2000-10, half the rate of 1.07% in the previous decade. The data imply that the total fertility rate, which is the number of children a woman of child-bearing age can expect to have, on average, during her lifetime, may now be just 1.4, far below the “replacement rate” of 2.1, which eventually leads to the population stabilising.
Slower growth is matched by a dramatic ageing of the population. People above the age of 60 now represent 13.3% of the total, up from 10.3% in 2000 (see chart). In the same period, those under the age of 14 declined from 23% to 17%. A continuation of these trends will place ever greater burdens on the working young who must support their elderly kin, as well as on government-run pension and health-care systems. China’s great “demographic dividend” (a rising share of working-age adults) is almost over.
In addition to skewing the country’s age distribution, the one-child policy has probably exacerbated its dire gender imbalance. Many more baby boys are born in China than baby girls. China is not unique in this; other countries, notably India, have encountered similar problems without coercive population controls. But Chinese officials do not dispute that the one-child policy has played a role. China’s strong cultural imperative for male offspring has led many families to do whatever they must to ensure that their one permissible child is a son. In the earliest days of the one-child policy, this sometimes meant female infanticide. As ultrasound technology spread, sex-selective abortions became widespread.