Sunday, March 13, 2011

Will Demographics Be the End of China?

In recent years, you hear the media and politicians tell us about how China is going to rise as the next world power.  We see China's military spending increase by double digits.  China's GDP has, on average, grown well over five percent each year since the Open Door Policy of 1978.  Many products that we buy here in America say "Made in China."  The Chinese have 2.78 trillion dollars in foreign exchange reserves.  China's soft power in international relations has been more prominent as we observe their influence in such organizations as the World Trade Organization and the United Nations

There is no question about it.  China's overall clout in international politics is augmenting, which will change the way the United States approaches foreign policy in the future.  However, it might be a bit premature for us to declare China as a world hemogony.  Pekingologists, or individuals who watch the ever-changing political scene of China, have historically had a difficult time predicting the direction of China.  This is not because they are incompetent.  It's quite the reverse.  They are well-educated individuals with high education.  Their knowledge of China is immense.  Rather, it is the volatile state of Chinese politics, much of which can be attributed to the size of China itself.  Although I would hesitate to make a prediction myself, I can nevertheless state apprehensions I have about China's ascent to power.  The fact of the matter is that China's overall growth is not something we can view with rose-colored glasses.  There are legitimate concerns about China internally collapsing, much of which have to do with demographic trends.  Although Nicholas Eberstadt from AEI touches upon some of them in his latest article, I would like to explore the demographics of China, as well.

China has approximately 1.3 billion people, making it the number one country in terms of population.  In the mid-1990s, Pekingologists concluded that the ideal population for China would be 500 million, and that it should not exceed one billion.  This means that according to these estimates, China has already exceeded its maximum by 300 million people, which is slightly short of the American population.  Overpopulation has ramifications is resource depletion.  Supporting 22% of the world's population, China only has 7% of the world's arable farmland.  The Chinese are depleting this land fast.  The amount of arable land in China decreased by half from 1949 to 2000.

Land is not the only resource at stake.  China is dealing with a severe water shortage.  Back in 1997, the world average of water per capita per annum was 10,900 cubic meters.  For China, it was only 2,200 cubic meters!  Urbanization, industrialization, irrigation, all of which are exacerbated by population increase, deplete the water all the quicker.  Water is one of those necessities to survive, so if China runs out of water soon, you can bet that there will be some internal instability.

Aside from overpopulation, there is a public policy of China's that is starting to show its long-term effects: the One Child Policy.  The Chinese government calls this policy "family planning," which is what the Left calls its pro-abortion stance.  That is no coincidence since the premise behind the One Child Policy is to make abortions mandatory to make sure Chinese families have only one family.  It seemed like a wonderful way to deal with the aforementioned population issues at the time.  300 million abortions is a sure-fire way to prevent further population growth.

The reason why the One Child Policy is going to backfire in the long-run is because of China's aging population is going to greatly alter public policy.  China is facing the "4-2-1" problem.  Although Chinese families traditionally have taken care of elders, this will no longer be the case since a single youth would now be obliged to take care of two parents and four grandparents, hence why they call it the "4-2-1 problem."  Increased pressure will be put on the government to provide for the elderly.  This will be further exacerbated by the elderly support ratio.  We are experiencing a similar problem here in America with Social Security.  When Social Security started, there were about 16 workers for every retiree.  Now we're at a point where it's approximately two, and will only get lower with the Baby Boomers retiring.  A similar scenario is playing out in China.  The elderly support ratio will go from the current nine down to 2.5 by 2050.

Conclusion: Resource depletion in a nation in which the population will hit its peak population in 2029 is a real possibility.  China's fertility rate is at 1.5, which is about 30% below the 2.1 that you need to sustain a population.  A declining population with a decreased work force will augment the problems of the already-burdened state of China.  If people are unable to get a necessary amount of water, let alone a decent standard of living, China will be seeing an increased amount of discontent within its borders.  The unpredictables here will be a) if the Chinese government can find adequate solutions before the problems hit catastrophic levels, b) if the people will cause mass uprising against its own government, and c) how the government will react to all of this.  Although China has the potential to avert disaster, one can certainly say that a solid future is anything but set in stone. 

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