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China’s Population: The Coming Decline

Summary:
Pity China's statisticians, who seem caught in the middle between the facts of arithmetic and the demands of government. The recent kerfuffle started about a week ago when the Financial Times reported, "China set to report first population decline in five decades" (April 27, 2021).  The report was based on "people familiar with the research," who presumably had some insight into the results of China's population census that was completed last December, with data schedule for released in April. But apparently this census data was too hot to handle. The FT quoted Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the a Beijing-based think-tank, who said: "The census results will have a huge impact on how the Chinese people see their country and how various government departments work. They need to be handled very

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Pity China's statisticians, who seem caught in the middle between the facts of arithmetic and the demands of government. The recent kerfuffle started about a week ago when the Financial Times reported, "China set to report first population decline in five decades" (April 27, 2021).  The report was based on "people familiar with the research," who presumably had some insight into the results of China's population census that was completed last December, with data schedule for released in April. 

But apparently this census data was too hot to handle. The FT quoted Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the a Beijing-based think-tank, who said: "The census results will have a huge impact on how the Chinese people see their country and how various government departments work. They need to be handled very carefully.” A few days later, China's National Bureau of Statistics released a one-sentence statement on its website: According to our understanding, in 2020, China’s population continued to grow." The actual numbers have not yet been released. 

I have no inside information about the details of China's population numbers for 2020. But I do know that demographic patterns can be inexorable. China made decisions a half-century in the early 1970s about pursuing an aggressive policy of population control, decisions that evolved into the stringently enforced "one child" policy adopted in 1979.  A common saying in China was that it takes six adults to raise one child: that is, the two sets of grandparents who had one child each, and whose offspring then produced a single grandchild. 

When low birthrates have been in motion for several generations, population growth will eventually drop below replacement rates.  Japan's population began shrinking about a decade ago. Russia's population peaked back in the 1990s. A group of demographers looking at global population forecasts predicted in the Lancet that by 2100: "In 23 countries, including Japan, Thailand, Spain, and Ukraine, populations are expected to decline by 50% or more. Another 34 countries will probably decline by 25–50%, including China, with a forecasted 48.0% decline."

In short, it's not clear if China's population peaked last year, or if the peak will happen in the next few years, but at some point, the fact of the peak will be undeniable. Indeed, China's National Bureau of Statistics has already been reporting for several years that the size of China's working-age population aged between 15-64 peaked back in 2014. It has been apparent for some years now that China faces a challenge as to whether the country will become old before it becomes rich. 

There are multiple ironies here. One is that after decades of pushing hard for population control, China's government has now apparently decided that a declining population would be an undesirable outcome. Another irony is that China's repressive and draconian one-child policy may had relatively little effect.  Countries around the world and in east Asia have experienced rapidly falling birthrates in recent decades without anything like China's one-child policy. Several academic studies suggest that if China's birthrates had just declined in the same way as in other countries that had similar birthrates back in in 1970, China's population would have come out in at about the same level.   

I know that I am naive and foolish in the ways of public relations. But I learned long ago when a government is faced with an embarrassing admission, a politically useful approach can be to declare victory and move ahead. Thus, it seems obvious to me that from a public relations point of view, China's government should declare victory in its long-standing population-control campaign, point to the level or declining population level as evidence of the great success, and then say the time has come when such constraints are no longer needed--and in fact that higher birthrates can now be welcomed because of the sacrifices in the past. But attempts to deny that China's population either has peaked, or is about to peak, will need to fly in the face of both evidence and demographic logic. 

Timothy Taylor
Managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, based at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, which can be read free on-line courtesy of the American Economic Association.

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