The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion If China’s demography will determine its future, we have nothing to worry about 

A crowd of people at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. (Gilles Sabrié/For The Washington Post)

Demography does not dictate any nation’s destiny, but it shapes every nation’s trajectory, so attention must be paid to Nicholas Eberstadt. He knows things that should occasion some American worries, but also knows more important things that should assuage some worries regarding Russia and China.

Writing in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs (“With Great Demographics Comes Great Power”), Eberstadt, of the American Enterprise Institute, warns of “negative demographic trends now eating away at the foundations of U.S. power.” America is the third-most populous nation, and between 1990 and 2015 generated almost all the population growth of what the United Nations calls the more developed regions. From 1950 to 2015, it acquired almost 50 million immigrants — “nearly half of the developed world’s net immigration.” Between the mid-1980s and the 2008 financial crisis, America was “the only rich country with replacement level fertility” (2.1 children per woman).

So, by 2040, when the U.S. population is around 380 million, its population will be younger than that of almost any other rich democracy, and the working-age population will still be expanding. In 2015, the United States had twice as many working-age people with undergraduate or graduate degrees as China had — almost one-sixth of the world’s total.

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After the 2008 financial crisis, however, the fertility rate fell and, Eberstadt says, “shows no sign of recovering.” Furthermore, the employment rate for men ages 25 to 54 is comparable to its level in 1939 — during the Depression. And America’s “traditional allies face even more daunting demographic challenges,” with the European Union and Japan having had sub-replacement fertility rates since the 1970s. Demographers say “a woman born in Japan in 1990 has close to a 40 percent chance of having no children of her own and a 50 percent chance of never having grandchildren.”

America can seek new friends and allies: By 2040, the populations of Indonesia and the Philippines could be 300 million and 140 million (by then larger than Russia’s), respectively. Russia’s and China’s problems are more intractable.

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Vladimir Putin is a strongman ruling a shriveling country. Regarding population and human capital, Russia seems to be, Eberstadt says, in “all but irremediable decline.” In 2016, males 15 years old had a life expectancy shorter than their Haitian counterparts, and 15-year-old females’ life expectancy was only slightly better than those in the least developed countries. With a population of 145 million, Russia has less privately held wealth than do the 10 million Swedes.

Much more important is what Eberstadt calls China’s “collapse in fertility.” Although China’s working-age population (there, 15 to 64) almost doubled between 1975 and 2010, fertility has been below the replacement level for at least 25 years. China’s population will shrink after 2027; its working-age population has been shrinking for five years and will be at least 100 million smaller by 2040, when the adult population “will have fewer average years of schooling than that of Bolivia and Zimbabwe.” By then, China might have twice as many elderly as children under 15. The number of elderly will have increased from 135 million to 325 million in 25 years, with the nation’s median age having gone from less than 25 in 1990 to 48. “No country,” says Eberstadt, “has ever gone gray at a faster pace.”

Furthermore, there will be “tens of millions of surplus men” in China because during the “one-child” policy (1979-2015), many parents chose abortion rather than the birth of a girl. Traditional family structures are evaporating as a rising generation of urban youth consists of “only children of only children.”

India probably will replace China as the most populous nation by 2030, and by 2040 India’s working-age population might be 200 million larger than China’s. “India’s population will still be growing in 2040, when China’s will be in rapid decline,” Eberstadt says. “By that time, about 24 percent of China’s population will be over 65, compared with around 12 percent of India’s.” Furthermore, nothing is more certain than that China’s Leninist state will continue the corrupt or otherwise inefficient allocation of resources, making robust economic growth even more elusive than it already is.

The actions of supine U.S. corporations — most conspicuously the NBA, but scores more — reflect a mistaken extrapolation. It is the projection that China’s four decades of economic ascent will continue unabated, making that nation an irresistible force. Corporate groveling might abate when chief executives understand China’s overrated present and precarious future. They should consider that less invertebrate corporate behavior might bend China toward decency, and certainly would protect corporations from Americans’ rising disgust with corporate indecency.

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