China, a demographic time bomb

International Futures Programme

A fifth of the world’s population lives in China. That proportion will not change much, and the demographic ressures on the Chinese political and social model will be tremendous. 

China represents an extreme example of the problems countries experiencing rapid demographic transition will have to face in the coming decades. A recent study estimates that China's population will peak at 1.6 billion in 2040, compared with 1.2 billion in 1995. It is expected to fall below 1.4 billion by 2100. These are massive demographic fluctuations, affecting 20% of the world's population, and they raise a number of serious issues concerning food, jobs, urbanisation and ageing. Take grain production.

It will need to increase by 4.47 billion kg per year to keep pace with China's population growth between now and 2020. This will require significant improvements in agricultural technology and land resource management. China may have to increase its annual grain imports to 40-50 million tons. But if China lags in its agricultural development and research, it may find itself importing a lot more than that, perhaps as much as 300 million tons. That would be good news for its larger suppliers, such as the United States and Australia, but could be a disaster for poor people if prices rise too. As for employment, China's working-age population will peak at 955 million in 2020 (732 million in 1995).

The massive increase in the supply of labour will be directed to the urban market. This will pose severe social and environmental problems, although it will initially provide an opportunity for investors seeking cheap labour. The working age population will decline after 2020, to about 800 million towards the end of the century. This will slow the improvement in education and skill levels among the working-age population as the rate of new entrants declines, and that will bear down on labour productivity. The 21st century will be a period of rapid urbanisation for China. Some 90% of the population will live in towns and cities by the end of the century, compared with 37% in 1995.

In absolute terms, the urban population is expected to peak at 1.2 billion in 2060 -- which is broadly the same as today's total population for the entire country -- compared with 450 million in 1995. This near-tripling of the urban population will have clear implications for construction and resource management.

Another demographic trend to watch out for is ageing, as China experiences a dramatic fall in fertility rates to below replacement level. In Beijing, births may already be down to 1.4-1.5 per woman. In Shanghai the ratio appears to be 0.96 births per female; in other words, more and more women are not having children at all. The upshot of all this will be a rapid ageing of the population. By 2025 the average age in China will be 40. In 1995 it was 27. Care of the elderly is clearly going to become a massive problem for the Chinese authorities, since the only social security system for most of the country's poor is their family, and in 2025 parents will have few offspring on which to depend. More and more Chinese parents only have one child, and they mostly want that child to be a boy. In fact, there is an intense social, almost peer, pressure for families to make sure their child is male. Selective abortion and female infanticide are common.

Bridal angst

China's gender ratio is unbalanced as a result. The trouble is that the men which the custom of selectivity sought to "produce" will have to pay for their privilege by suffering a shortage of brides. And in future that means fewer kids.

Indeed, by 2020, the surplus of Chinese males in their 20s will exceed the entire female population of Taiwan. The gender imbalance will get worse before it gets better; selective abortion is set to increase, not just for second and third births, but also for first births. This will cause social strains. Many young men will have to accept bachelorhood, a condition which often drives men to crime, even suicide and depression. Women on the other hand, will be scarcer, though whether that will lead to an improvement in their current low and often abused status is questionable.

To ensure that it does, anti-discrimination laws and rules on equality and female rights will have to be strengthened. The Chinese authorities could also abandon their policy of one child per family and allow family size to grow. However, without family planning and a proper revolution in recognising the rights of women, that may simply lead back to rapid population growth again.

Bibliography

China in the 21st Century: Long-Term Global Implications, OECD, 1996.

China, The next Superpower: Dilemmas in Change and Continuity, by Murray, Geoffrey Curzon Press, China Library, Surrey, 1998.

Other stories on this Spotlight on the 21st century

©OECD Observer No 217/218, Summer 1999




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