Much of the follow-up attention given to the census results published this week has concentrated on the implications for China’s one-child policy. This Bystander is more struck by the long-term economic impact of the key demographic trends–low birth rates, a greying of the population and an unbalanced sex ratio (15% of young Chinese men won’t be able to find a partner among their fellow citizens in 20 years time).
These will, we believe, likely combine to make China a deficit country within two decades. Working population is a proxy for production, and when it grows faster than the total population (a proxy for consumption), as it has for the past three decades, the difference becomes exports. Some time over the next decade that trend will reverse and the reversal intensify over the subsequent three decades reaching its peak in 2050. The consequent demographic bias will work through to the trade account long before then.
For now, China’s demographic dividend has brought it more than just merchandise trade surpluses. Add on dramatically rising productivity from economic reform to the country’s working population growing much faster than its total population and the inevitable consequence has been a sharp improvement in per-capita income and living standards. The peak in the workforce forecast for sometime in the next decade will be accompanied by an explosive growth in the number of over-65s. China’s working population will begin to grow more slowly than its total population. The demographic dividend will become a demographic tax. As China is getting old really fast, it will become an increasingly heavy tax relatively quickly.
That will drive the transformation of the economy towards being more led by domestic demand. The supply of surplus labor available to low-cost export manufacturers will dry up. Manufacturers will move up the value chain, and a domestic market for products and services for the elderly will expand domestic demand, helping to run up domestic consumption and down domestic savings. The era of manufacturing in China predominantly for export comes to a close, replaced by an era of manufacturing and services provision in China for Chinese consumers.
How this all turns out in detail will depend on other factors, such as changes in worker productivity, savings rates, institutional reform, whether monocultural China proves open enough to deal with future labor shortages through immigration, and, yes, what happens with the one-child policy. But today’s fast economic growth and huge export-driven current-account surpluses will by then be but a distant memory.
Footnote: Certainly the numbers can be used to argue the one-child policy policy should be scrapped. Wang Feng, Director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, does just that in a commentary in Caixin.
To put the growth of the population in some perspective, since the previous census in 2000, China’s population has grown by 74 million to 1.34 billion. The increase alone would be sufficient to rank as one of the 20 largest countries in the world by population, with about the same number of people as Turkey or Iran. Over the same decade India’s population increased by 181 million. And while we are making such comparisons, on present demographic trends, by 2050, silver China, the nation of Chinese over 65 years old, will constitute a larger nation than the U.S. today.