Negative population growth trap may become a super black swan for China’s rise

Experts say that the problem of fewer children will constrain China’s socio-economic development, and that the demographic crisis will be the country’s biggest problem.

Recently, Western media, international organizations, Chinese academia and political circles have coincidentally published articles about the same Chinese socio-political phenomenon: China will fall into a negative population growth trap in the next few years. This may become a super black swan for China’s rise.

The World Bank estimates that China will begin to experience negative population growth in 2029. Research by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences shows that the population will start to contract from 2027, and in a few decades, the number of people will drop to 700 to 800 million. The UN’s forecast scenario is even more pessimistic, suggesting that China’s population will fall below 1 billion to 613 million by the end of the century. Other experts say that negative population growth could occur as early as 2025, or even sooner. Regardless of the accuracy of these projections, it is an indisputable fact that China’s population problem poses a serious crisis.

After more than 30 years of enforcing a one-child policy, the Chinese government finally decided to open up the second child in 2015. Population experts at the Time predicted that the number of births would reach 35.4 million, 49.95 million, 40.25 million, and 35.4 million in the next four years (2016-2019). However, these predictions proved to be seriously wrong. the number of births in 2016 only reached 17.86 million and then continued to go down. Using 2017 as a benchmark, the number dropped by 2 million in 2018 alone; it dropped by another 580,000 in 2019 to only 14.65 million, with a birth rate of just 10.48 per 1,000; and it is expected that by 2030, the number of births will drop again to below 11 million.

Since the full opening of the second child in 2016, China has not only failed to bring about a fertility peak, but the number of births has been declining year by year. This is embarrassing for the officials of China’s health and Planning Commission and population experts who are patting themselves on the back with guarantees! They say “China is not short of population, and will not be for the next hundred years”. They sneered that the claims of an avalanche of population decline in China were a big joke. But now they can’t laugh anymore. They are too busy shifting their positions and offering explanations for their past assurances that supposedly fit historical changes. Among these shifting or already shifting views and positions, a few changes are of particular interest.

First, in a rare move, officials have never admitted that China’s demographic dividend has disappeared. Miao Wei, former Chinese Minister of Industry and Information Technology and current deputy director of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Economic Committee, admitted on November 14 last year that China has come out of the “demographic dividend” period. The “demographic dividend period” refers to the 1970s and 1980s, when the working-age population between the ages of 15 and 64 accounted for about 65 percent of the total population, creating a “productive” labor structure with a small population of spenders and a large population of earners. This wave of demographic dividend coincided with the reform and opening up, which drove China’s rapid economic growth. But 40 years later, the “dividend” has turned into a “liability”. Originally, China’s “demographic dividend” has been declining or even disappearing, as discussed by scholars, media and the public, but the Chinese Communist Party has been reluctant to publicly admit. Miao Wei, on the contrary, has become a rare Chinese senior official to admit that the demographic dividend has disappeared.

Another notable change is that prominent conservative scholars in demography have abandoned the conservative stance they once held on population control and advocated full autonomy in childbirth. The representative figure is Zhai Zhenwu, president of the Chinese Population Society, who, as an authority on demography in China, used to go to Zhongnanhai to explain the population situation to Politburo members and whose views often echoed those of the national Family planning department, and was once considered the “official roadmap” for population policy or the conservative wing of population policy reform. But in December last year, Zhai Zhenwu’s position changed dramatically, from opposing the two-child policy in 2013 to advocating full autonomy in 2020 during the 14th Five-Year Plan, causing surprise and debate. Liang Jianzhang, who often challenges Zhai Zhenwu, asked directly in his article, “Now even Zhai Zhenwu supports the full liberalization of childbirth?”

The question here is, why did senior Chinese officials finally have to admit that China’s demographic dividend had disappeared? Why have conservative demographers finally abandoned their 30- or 40-year stance on population control? Their policy and position shifts clearly point to the extraordinarily grim fact that China’s population problem is indeed in serious crisis, and that this crisis has not been alleviated in the slightest by the promotion of the two-child policy.

The government and demographic authorities have made a 180-degree U-turn in their positions on China’s population. This reveals the extraordinary seriousness of China’s demographic problem. Its severity is underscored by the fact that China faces a serious low fertility rate or negative growth trap.

The total fertility rate in China is already below the warning line, and this is a consensus among both government and academia. The total fertility rate, which refers to the total number of children per woman of childbearing age (15-49 years), is an important indicator of population trends. It is accepted in demographic circles that the total fertility rate must be at least 2.1 in order to maintain a basically stable population between the upper and lower generations and to reach a normal level of generation replacement. The demographic community also considers 1.5 as a critical point, below which the fertility level is very low. China’s current total fertility rate is below 1.5, which has caused concern among civil affairs authorities and academics. Minister of Civil Affairs Li Jiheng confessed that China’s total fertility rate has fallen below the warning line and the population development has entered a critical turning point. And some demographers say that China’s total fertility rate has fallen below 1.5 in 2018, seriously below the requirement for generational replacement.

More seriously, China’s actual total fertility rate is much lower than the officially acknowledged 1.5. According to the birth population projections released by the National Bureau of Statistics, although the fertility rates in 2018 and 2019 are 1.495 and 1.47, respectively, China’s fertility rate is actually only between 1.1 and 1.2 in 2018 and 2019 if the cumulative effect of the policy on second-child births is deducted. In his article “Forecast for 2021: No Lowest Fertility Rate, Only Lower”, Liang Jianzhang, a professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, bluntly points out that China’s total fertility rate will rapidly fall to 1.2 or even lower, and that China has fallen into the “low-fertility trap” (the low-fertility trap). “The low-fertility trap is undeniable.

The “low-fertility trap” was first proposed by Austrian scholar Wolfgang Lutz and others in 2006. One of their key arguments is that once a country enters the “low-fertility trap,” it is difficult to extricate itself from it. He explains the “self-reinforcing mechanism” of the “low-fertility trap” in three ways. From a demographic perspective, low fertility leads to a lower number of women of childbearing age, and a lower number of women of childbearing age leads to a lower fertility rate; from a sociological perspective, a reduction in the ideal family size of childbearing couples leads to a further reduction in the number of children born to the younger generation when they reach childbearing age; from an economic perspective, a reduction in fertility raises living standards, and in order to raise living standards, people will further reduce In economic terms, lower fertility rates will raise living standards, and in order to raise living standards, people will have fewer children, etc. Paradoxically, the 2006 study by Lutz et al. and his “low-fertility trap” is now playing out in China. This explains the sudden 180-degree shift in the position of once vocal Chinese officials and some demographers. The “self-reinforcing mechanism” in the analysis also reveals the mechanism that makes it difficult for China to pull itself out of the “low-fertility trap” even if the Communist Party officially changes its stance on family planning and implements an open-fertility policy.

According to another group of demographers, the CCP’s official change of stance on family planning came too late. If the abolition of the one-child policy had occurred a decade or two ago, the effect would have been very different. Wang Feng, a population expert who teaches at an American university, says China should have made the change in 1992 when fertility levels fell below arable land levels. Now, there is a larger trend in Chinese society: late Marriage, late childbearing and even infertility, a trend that makes the complete abolition of birth control now meaningless, the “baby boom” cannot return, and the sharp shrinkage of China’s population is difficult to alleviate.

The negative effects of China’s dramatic population contraction on the country’s rise are obvious in many ways. This means, first of all, further aging. China’s population of people over 60 years of age has surpassed 250 million in 2019, with a population share of 18.1%, and will reach 25% in 2030. Such rapid aging will severely constrain China’s economic vitality, tighten labor supply, hit the pension and healthcare system, and weaken China’s competitiveness internationally. Some say that the only strong enemy of China’s renaissance is China’s low fertility rate and aging population, not the United States at all. In contrast, the United States, with a fertility rate of 1.87 in 2018 and an immigrant population to supplement the labor force shortage, is under much less pressure than China’s aging population.

In short, the Chinese Communist Party has used coercive means to control the population for a while, but now it is having trouble getting people to have more children by opening up fertility and allowing them to have children on their own. For Chinese policymakers, the “low fertility trap,” accompanied by the disappearance of the labor force demographic dividend and the imminent onset of heavy aging, comes at an important historical juncture in China’s attempt to catch up economically with the United States, which is likely to be too much for those in power in the CCP who want to overtake the United States as soon as possible.

In this regard, time and momentum are not on the side of the CCP.