Describe the Chinese population:
Observers of China’s rise, when assessing the implications for global peace and prosperity, have largely focused their attention on the country’s economy, on its energy and resource needs, on the environmental consequences of its rapid expansion, and on the nation’s military buildup and strategic ambitions. Yet, underlying all these dazzling changes and monumental concerns is a driving force that has been seriously underappreciated: China’s changing demography. With 1.33 billion people, China today remains the world’s most populous country. In a little more than a decade, however, it will for the first time in its long history give up this title, to India. But, even more important, China’s demographic landscape has in recent decades been thoroughly redrawn by unprecedented population changes. These changes will in the future drive the country’s economic and social dynamics, and will redefine its position in the global economy and the society of nations. Taken together, the changes portend a gathering crisis. One number best characterizes China’s demographics today: 160 million. First, the country has more than 160 million internal migrants who, in the process of seeking better lives, have supplied abundant labor for the nation’s booming economy. Second, more than 160 million Chinese are 60 years old or older. Third, more than 160 million Chinese families have only one child, a product in part of the country’s three-decade-old policy limiting couples to one child each. (The total populations of countries like Japan and Russia do not reach 160 million; Bangladesh’s population is roughly equal to that number.) But the relative size of these three Chinese population groups of 160 million will soon change. As a result of the country’s low fertility rates since the early 1990s, China has already begun experiencing what will become a sustained decline in new entrants into its labor force and in the number of young migrants. The era of uninterrupted supplies of young, cheap Chinese labor is over. The size of the country’s population aged 60 and above, on the other hand, will increase dramatically, growing by 100 million in just 15 years (from 200 million in 2015 to over 300 million by 2030). The number of families with only one child, which is also on a continued rise, only underscores the challenge of supporting the growing numbers of elderly Chinese. Why should one care about these demographic changes, and why should the overused label “crisis” be attached to such slow-moving developments? The aging of China’s population represents a crisis because its arrival is imminent and inevitable, because its ramifications are huge and long-lasting, and because its effects will be hard to reverse. Political legitimacy in China over the past three decades has been built around fast economic growth, which in turn has relied on a cheap and willing young labor force. An aging labor force will compel changes in this economic model and may make political rule more difficult. An aging population will force national reallocations of resources and priorities, as more funds flow to health care and pensions. Indeed, increased spending obligations created by the aging of the population will not only shift resources away from investment and production; they will also test the government’s ability to meet rising demands for benefits and services. In combination, a declining labor supply and increased public and private spending obligations will result in an economic growth model and a society that have not been seen in China before. Japan’s economic stagnation, closely related to the aging of its population, serves as a ready reference. China’s demographic changes will also have far-reaching implications for the world economy, which has relied on China as a global factory for the past two decades and more. The changes may also affect international peace and security. An aging population is likely to lead to a more...
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