Chinese state media on Tuesday labored to downplay the results of the seventh national census, which found birth rates plummeting to the lowest levels in half a century, putting the enormous Chinese population on course for a devastating demographic crisis.
The state-run Global Times dismissed the census as a matter of minor concern, suggesting a few “adjustments in China’s population policies” should fix the problem, such as providing incentives to “comprehensively encourage childbirth.”
“We do not need to panic. The loss of demographic dividend will have influence on China’s economy. But China is not the only country facing such a problem, since many developed countries have gone through a similar process of population aging,” the Global Times wrote. “As China is such a huge society, it will have larger room in handling this issue compared with many developed countries. For example, China’s labor force is still generally sufficient so far.”
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) paper blithely assumed that because “Chinese people cherish family values more than many Westerners,” they can more easily reverse population decline, and since the tyranny in Beijing nominally only allows couples to have two children at present, “the real toolbox has not been opened yet” in terms of population-boosting policies.
The problem with this “what, me worry?” spin on the Chinese census is that other industrialized nations are discovering there are no magic tools in the toolbox for reversing long-term population decline with lollipop incentives such as enhanced child care benefits.
Last year, on the eve of the pandemic, even some CCP officials began publicly grumbling that young Chinese couples simply did not respond to the relaxation of the horrifying “One-Child Policy” by having more kids.
“Simply allowing a couple to have a second child does not mean they will have one, as the costs of raising children, escalating housing prices and mounting career pressures on women dampen couples’ desire to have more children,” fretted another state media organ, China Daily, in December 2020. The article went on to note that Chinese social programs and pensions are already feeling the pinch from a shortage of young workers.
China now has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, and other members of the low-birth club are finding it extremely difficult to counteract the cultural forces that lead to demographic decline among industrialized nations.
The Global Times would brook no criticism of China brutally enforcing one-child-per-family limits for decades and said Western analysts are merely “aiming to badmouth China” by warning about the consequences of demographic decline.
“But this is ridiculous,” the editorial argued. “No matter how slow China’s population growth is, the population of 1.4 billion is larger than the combined population of all Western countries. Our demographic changes have brought about realistic social problems such as a heavier burden of pensions. But its impact on China’s international competitiveness is particularly slow, and is even insignificant. China is a young rising power, and this will not change for a long time to come.”
Another Global Times article claimed the census showed China’s “ethnic population increased steadily, fully reflecting the comprehensive development and progress of all ethnic groups in China under the leadership of the Communist Party of China” — a characteristically clumsy effort by the repressive regime to deny it is practicing aggressive population control techniques, including forced sterilization and abortion, on disfavored minorities such as the Muslim Uyghurs of Xinjiang province.
Yet another bit of editorial spin from the Global Times accused Western media of “hyping” China’s demographic problem and claimed China enjoys a “population dividend” that will make its people “richer, well-educated, and more tech-savvy” for generations to come, even as the size of the workforce contracts.
“Industry observers said that the stakes involving the demographics are high not only in terms of serving as a guide for government policy tools, but more importantly, it could help China embark on a new economic model that relies less on cheap labor and more by booming consumption and innovation. The transformation is on par with the country’s economic overhaul to shift the gravity of growth,” the Global Times wrote, perhaps signaling that the CCP is worried about losing its “sharp power” economic clout if foreing companies think its labor supply and consumer market are dwindling.
A final Global Times article on the census on Tuesday claimed the month-long delay in releasing its data was unremarkable because it took more time to compile its “more abundant” data compared to the sixth census. Chinese officials defended the accuracy of the census, implicitly attempting to refute suspicions the government was stunned by the results and held onto the report for an extra month to cook the numbers.
On Wednesday, the day after the Global Times released this cloud of editorial happy talk, a Chinese think tank warned the population could slip into net decline as early as 2026, completely erasing the “demographic dividends” the Global Times touted with such confidence.
Professor Zhai Zhenwu of the China Population and Development Research Center said “the era of zero, or even negative, population growth is gradually approaching” and would bring “major change unseen in a century” to both China’s industry and consumer base.
“An older population will increase the fiscal burden of old-age pensions and health care provision, and also push down the household savings rate — both factors that will constrain the government’s ability to continue the investment-driven growth model of recent decades,” warned Beijing-based analyst Ernan Cui.