Why we should care about China’s shrinking population

For the first time in six decades, the most populous country in the world has a shrinking population

Michael Cunningham, a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, says “this is a crisis that’s been decades in the making” and it will likely shock the global economy. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news organization.)

“Really since at least the 1990s China has known that its population was going to decline,” Cunningham says. “For decades it has had this draconian policy, this population control policy. For most of the time, it was people were limited to one child only, and so in many cases, they would fine people if they had more than one child.”

“In some cases, authorities at the local level would sterilize people, force them to have abortions and so they’re controlling it this entire time. For all these years, the population growth rate was really high and then it just plummets,” he says. 

Cunningham continues: 

And then it has now reached this time where they have negative population growth. We’ve never had a country then go from negative population growth up to the replacement level, so it is a crisis.

China is going to have to deal with it for the foreseeable future.

Cunningham joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss more about China’s shrinking population, why it will almost certainly impact the global economy, and the Middle Kingdom’s battle against COVID-19. 

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Samantha Aschieris. Joining today’s podcast is Michael Cunningham. He’s a research fellow focusing on China in the Asian Studies Center here at The Heritage Foundation. Michael, thanks for joining us again.

Michael Cunningham: Thanks for having me again.

Aschieris: Of course. Now, you and I have talked about China and the Chinese Communist Party in the past a lot. And what I want to talk to you about today are these recent reports that China’s population is shrinking. Now, The New York Times reports that more than 9.5 million people were born in China last year, whereas just under 10.5 million people died. First and foremost, what’s the significance of these numbers and China’s population shrinking?

Cunningham: Yeah, so, this is a crisis that’s been decades in the making. Really since at least the 1990s China has known that its population was going to decline. For decades it has had this draconian policy, this population-control policy. For most of the time it was people were limited to one child only. And so in many cases it was, they would fine people if they had more than one child. In some cases, authorities at the local level would sterilize people, force them to have abortions. And so they’re controlling it this entire time. 

For all these years, the population growth rate was really high and then it just plummets. And then it has now reached this time where they have negative population growth. We’ve never had a country then go from negative population growth up to the replacement level so it is a crisis. China is going to have to deal with it for the foreseeable future.

Aschieris: And I also wanted to talk more about what is contributing to this. You brought up the one-child policy and the CNN article that I was reading talked about changing attitudes toward marriage and family among Chinese youth, among the challenges of raising children in China’s expensive cities. What else are you seeing contributing to this problem?

Cunningham: Yeah, so, I think those are the biggest issues. Now, countries, societies, when they become developed, they generally, the population, the birth rate goes down. And we see that happening in Japan, we see it in South Korea and Taiwan. These are all societies that do not have any population control in effect, but their growth rates declined precipitously as they developed. 

Now, in China, what the Chinese government did was expedite that through the one-child policy and they essentially—we’re not just talking about limiting people to one child. We’re talking about a propaganda push about traditionally the Chinese want a big family, they want to carry on the family name, and they had to exterminate that part of their culture in order to have an easier time enforcing the population controls. 

And so what we’ve seen is, in addition to the economic drivers of this changing culture, we also have the government that has essentially forced their culture to change. And the government now wants them to have more children and the people, frankly, don’t want to.

Aschieris: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit more about what the response has been from the Chinese Communist Party to these reports that came out?

Cunningham: Well, so, the CCP has known for quite some years that they’re going to have this problem. And so it’s no surprise to them. I mean, they released their population figures. So no surprise to them. 

In the last decade, they have relaxed their population controls. Now, population controls generally are just such an artificial thing. I mean, who would’ve thought of controlling how many children someone can have? But of course, the CCP thinks of it. And instead of responding to the earlier indications that they were about to have a crisis by just completely scrapping their controls, they eased it from one child to two children and some people had the second child. And they eased it from two children to three children. And people aren’t really having more children, for the most part.

Now they’re trying to incentivize people to have more children. They’re trying to pressure people into having more children. And frankly, a lot of people are tired in China. “One day you’re going to force me to have an abortion. Now you’re trying to pressure me into having more children. What am I, a machine?” That’s literally the type of social media rhetoric you—

Aschieris: Oh, wow. That’s interesting.

Cunningham: … see from women in China.

Aschieris: Yeah, definitely flip the script, essentially, on their messaging. And one other thing, we’ve been seeing different reports talking about the different implications for not only China itself, but also the world in relation to this, the shrinking population. Obviously, China plays a huge role in the global economy, so can you talk more about how this could have an impact outside of China?

Cunningham: Yeah, certainly. Well, first of all, I would say in China—because what affects the Chinese economy now affects the world. China used to say about America, “When America sneezes, the world catches cold.” You can definitely say that about China and the Chinese economy. 

And so what we have now is we are going to increasingly have insufficient working-age people to take care of the elderly people in China. Now, we’re already seeing a significant decrease in the number of unskilled workers in China, both because of their improving education levels and the developing economy, but also because of the decreasing population.

So, China being the workshop of the world for various reasons is ending gradually and the population decline is going to contribute to this. 

I would say one thing though, I have seen some speculation that the population decline is a crisis that China is going to have to respond to by either to divert attention or because it’s worried it’s not going to have enough soldiers in the future, that it’s going to make it more belligerent in the near term. I would say that is not the case, both because China is still—I think the U.N. projects that its population will fall by 45% by the end of the century, which is massive, but it’s still going to be a very large country. So I think the other thing is very unlikely. 

I mean, this really affects China’s strategic thinking when, if it’s increasingly going to, … especially initially, it’s moving to the point where if it were to, say, have to fight a war for whatever reason, they’re putting their working-age young men on the line, dying in battle, and it’s going to be even fewer people they have to take care of the elderly.

Aschieris: Now, I just want to shift topics a little bit and talk about COVID-19 and then what’s been going on in China. We saw these reports, specifically CNBC reporting that just about 60,000 people with COVID-19 in China have died in a hospital since the country lifted its “zero-COVID” policy in December. Of those deaths, a little over 5,000 were because of respiratory failure due to COVID, while the rest were a combination of COVID and other diseases, according to that same CNBC article. 

So let’s talk about this. I mean, is this a reality, very unfortunate reality, that the Chinese government and its people are going to have to live with moving forward, dealing with COVID?

Cunningham: Well, first of all, let me talk about those figures. Those are the figures they got from the Chinese government.

Aschie: OK. Yeah.

Cunningham: Those figures are completely made up. The real death toll is probably more like 10 times that at least since they scrapped zero-COVID. What happens is China intentionally deflates these figures. 

And so you mentioned the 5,000 or whatever it was that were classified as COVID deaths. These are people that don’t have any underlying conditions and they died of respiratory failure or pneumonia after contracting COVID-19. 

So just to put it in perspective, I know a lot of people in China and for the first couple years of the pandemic really until 2022, I had never met anyone in China who knew anyone who had gotten COVID-19. Now, I don’t think I know anyone who has not personally gotten it in the last 60 days. And most of the people I talk to either have a relative or someone that they know who has died of the virus in the last 60 days. So huge problem. 

And you ask, “Is this something China, that people are just going to have to live with going forward?” Well, yes, but let’s put it into perspective as well. The Chinese government seems to be intentionally, since scrapping zero-COVID, hoping to have the virus burn through the population as fast as possible so that it can get the country running again, the economy running again. I think it wants to do that before March when the annual legislative session is set to be held in Beijing. 

But eventually, whether it’s after this first wave or after a second wave, eventually it’s going to become more like the U.S. and the rest of the world where people have had so much exposure to the virus that it’s probably going to be less disruptive. And those with serious underlying conditions, unfortunately, will have passed away and it’s going to cause less disruption and less fear going forward after we get through this current crisis.

Aschieris: Well, Michael, thank you so much for joining us. Just before we go, do you have any final thoughts?

Cunningham: Yeah. I guess the final thought I would have, just putting these two topics together, we talk about the population decline and COVID. Both of these really show the failure of Chinese political campaigns. And that’s really one thing I think that the Chinese government and much of the world has bought into, this narrative for, really before COVID hit, this narrative that it’s a no-nonsense government that is just practical and makes decisions based on science and based on facts.

And what we really see happening here is the CCP is still the same party that it was when Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward and created the worst man-made famine in recorded history, the same China that launched the Cultural Revolution. Now, both of these were political campaigns that they could not back out of gracefully, so it just went from one extreme to the other as far as their policy went. 

And we saw the same thing happen with zero-COVID. We saw the same thing happen with the population controls. And in the end, it does affect the government’s legitimacy in a way. But the government will overcome these issues, but it’s the people that are left suffering.

Aschieris: Well, Michael, thank you so much for joining us. We’ll have to have you back on before the annual legislative session in March to talk more about that. I so appreciate you joining us and offering some great insight. Thank you so much.

Cunningham: Thank you, again.

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Samantha Aschieris

Guest Contributor

Self-Reliance Central publishes a variety of perspectives. Nothing written here is to be construed as representing the views of SRC. Reproduced with permission.