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Does China’s Population Bust Herald Our Own?

Does China’s Population Bust Herald Our Own?
 Bruno Tertrais
Senior Fellow - Geopolitics, International Relations and Demography

There was a time when Western countries worried about the fast growth of Asian populations. Current trends indicate that we should start worrying about the opposite one - and that, more generally, we should begin thinking about what it would mean to have a planet with too few humans

The Chinese Population: Turning a Corner

The results of China’s latest census were published in May and the results are not pretty. Beijing does not hide that births have declined for the fourth consecutive year, to 12 million (18% less than in 2019 and 33% less than in 2016). The fertility rate is now just 1.3, which indicates that China has fallen into what demographers call the "low-fertility trap": it is very hard for any population to reverse the trend when the rate falls below the 1.5 threshold. China claims that its population has grown by 11 million to 1.41 billion. However, observers noticed that the reported share of youngsters don’t match China’s own birth records - leading Beijing to publish a significant correction of past data one week later (one million births per year were added to the record of the 2010s), suggesting that it does not hesitate to cook the books to suit its narrative. 

Whatever the real numbers are today, it is clear that China’s demographic decline will soon begin - earlier than what UN projections had previously suggested. Many commentators blame the single-child policy, instituted in 1979, for the People’s Republic’s dramatic decline in births. In fact, this decline had already started before, China is just following a modern East Asian trend. The problem for Beijing is that the trend is going faster than it had for its neighbors, and that lifting the one-child restriction in 2016 has not managed to slow it down.

China’s demographic decline will soon begin - earlier than what UN projections had previously suggested.

China has had a higher median age than America since 2020. By 2040, 30% of the population will be over 60. Because it is so rapid, China’s ageing will undoubtedly have consequences on its economic performance, as well on its ability to sustain its elderly. Today about half of the income of retired persons depends on family assistance. 

But for the first time in recorded history, the average Chinese household size is now less than 3. Around 2060, nearly a fifth of men aged 70+ years will no longer have descendents.

Even more troubling is the fate of China’s Uyghur minority, which may be facing a deliberate and authoritarian population reduction, that some are already calling a true genocide. A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), based on an analysis of China’s own statistics, states that the birth rate in the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region was slashed by half (-48.74%) in just two years. In counties where minorities were more than 90% of the population, the reduction was even more brutal: from 2017 to 2018, the reported reduction in the birth rate was an extraordinary -56.5%. The authors of the report insist that this is unprecedented in post-1950 world history, even in wartime. 

Population Trends and the Future Balance of Power 

The whole of East Asia is undergoing a demographic transition which is happening much faster than what old industrialized countries experienced in the 20st century. Japan and South Korea are no longer producing babies (in fact, the latter has the lowest fertility rate in the world) and have little appetite for immigration. As a wake-up call, theoretical studies on when the "last person" would die in the country, if current trends continued, have been conducted. According to Tohoku University (2012), the "last Japanese" would disappear in 3011. That would be just a few centuries after the "last South Korean", who would die in 2750 according to a study by the Diet (2014).

Meanwhile, India is undergoing its own demographic transition. In fact, this transition is well underway in the Southern States of the Federation which have reached "modern" fertility levels. However, because the country is so large, it will still bring the biggest contribution to the increase in world population in the coming decades (+273 million between 2020 and 2050), and it will overtake China as early as the mid-2020s. As China will grey, India will awaken. According to a recent study published in The Lancet, the country’s working-age population will also surpass China’s in the mid-2020s and will be the biggest in the world by 2100. India is thus in a position to become a leading economic force in the second part of the century. That is, provided that public policy ensures the necessary environment in terms of education, infrastructure, legal norms, etc. - and much remains to be done in this regard - to allow the country to benefit from what experts call the "demographic dividend", that window of opportunity of a few decades when the ratio between the working age population and its dependents favors the former.

However, the United States, largely due to immigration, may also remain an economic superpower. To be sure, its latest April census results (331 million population in 2020), reveal that the previous decade saw the country’s slowest population growth since 1790, because of a reduction of births, a slowing down of South-North immigration (largely due to Mexico’s development), and a relatively high mortality rate. However, if The Lancet’s projections are correct, by the end of the century, the US will have the world’s fourth largest working-age population (181 million) and its GDP could surpass China’s again in 2098, after a few decades of being below it. 

As China will grey, India will awaken. [...] India is thus in a position to become a leading economic force in the second part of the century.

How about Europe? Since the mid-2010s, its population has been growing only through immigration. The Eastern and Southern parts of the continent are depopulating. For thirty years, Eastern Europe has been suffering what one could call a "population triple whammy": a decrease in births, an increase in deaths and emigration. Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania and Bosnia have lost more than 20% of their populations since 1990. This may explain why so many in Central and Eastern Europe now fear being "replaced" with immigrants. Russia is not in a much better place - though it is welcoming an increasing number of Central Asians.

Too Few Humans? The "Empty Cradle" Problem

A declining population is bad news for the economy. According to The Lancet study, the ratio between the non-working and the working population, which is now 0.8, will be 1.1 at the end of the century. The pensions problem is about to become global, even if workers work until later in life than is the case today. 

Looking further into the future, we may be facing a situation where, far from being overpopulated, the Earth may experience the reverse problem. The United Nations Population Division’s (UNPD) Population Prospects’ baseline scenario (2019) is that the world’s population will be 10.8 billion in 2100 and that fertility will remain around the 2.1 replacement rate. This looks almost too good to be true. In fact, other analyses envision that the Earth’s population will sharply decrease. The well respected Vienna-based International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) believes that this reduction will happen as early as 2060, and that the global population will be 9.5 billion in 2100. (A critical parameter here is the forecasting of China’s fertility. The UN believes it will increase in the future - the IIASA forecasts it to stay around 1.4-1.5 throughout the century.) 

Likewise, The Lancet’s new calculations, based on a higher number of parameters than the UNPD’s Population Prospects, claim that fertility is likely to decline faster than the UN believes - notably in Africa but also in Asia - and that humans will number only 8.8 billion by the end of the century. No less than 23 countries - in East Asia, Southern Europe and Eastern Europe in particular - are forecasted to lose more than half of their population by then. 

As stated with regards to China, the problem is that a fertility rate significantly below replacement may be a hole out of which it may be very hard to climb. Will the global population be doomed in the long run, not unlike the universe in the cosmological "big crunch" hypothesis? Probably not: The Lancet forecasts an average fertility rate of 1.66 at the global level by the end of the century - slightly above the dreaded 1.5 level. But mankind has no experience with sustaining such low fertility almost everywhere in the world. This would truly be unchartered territory. 

Covid-19 will thus have much less of an impact than previous global pandemics. 

Readers may ask: and what about the effects of the pandemic? There is a widely shared agreement that the official number of Covid-19 deaths is underestimated. In May 2021, the Washington State University estimated it to be about 7 million. The Economist put the real tally around 10 million.

However, the total number of deaths worldwide in 2019 was 58 million and the Earth’s population grows by around 80 million a year. Covid-19 will thus have much less of an impact than previous global pandemics, such as the Spanish Flu, which killed 1 to 5% of the world’s population. And certainly much less so than the Black Death - which according to recent estimates may have killed half of the world’s population of the time. However, it will have an important impact on the population of some countries. It turns out that the most affected (in deaths per million inhabitants) by the pandemic are almost all on the Eastern part of the continent, notably in Central Europe, a region already experiencing a severe demographic crisis: Hungary, the Czech Republic and Bosnia-Herzegovina according to official data; Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bulgaria according to the Washington State University. 

But what might be bad news for some countries might be good for the planet, right? Not so fast. To begin with, there is little evidence that a slowdown in economic growth would be a good thing for the environment: rich modern countries tend to take better care of it than those which are still developing. Even though a growing number of young persons in rich countries believe that having less (or no) children is the best way to combat climate change, this does not seem to be a rational calculus. A hypothetical drastic reduction in the world’s average fertility rate (-0.5) would only bring about 16-29% of the greenhouse gases reductions needed to stay under the 2°C target by 2050. The "CO2 cost" of children that sometimes appears in the media rests on very debatable assumptions. It is probably wiser to base reproductive decisions on personal choices rather than on hypothetical long-term costs and benefits for the Earth.



Copyright: Hector RETAMAL / AFP

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