August 21, 2008


China's impending catastrophe: Its shrinking, aging population (Jonathan V. Last, 8/15/08, Philadelphia Inquirer)

Over the next 40 years, China is headed for intense and rapid demographic change: Between now and 2050, China's population will shrink and become very, very old. There are no easy ways to manage this catastrophic problem.

In 1950, China had 550 million people; today, it is home to 1.3 billion souls. But the rate of population growth has slowed considerably.

According to projections from the United Nations' Population Division, China's population will peak at 1.458 billion in 2030. Then it will begin contracting. By 2050, they'll be down to 1.408 billion and will lose 20 million people every five years.

At the same time, the average age in China will be shooting up. In 2005, China's median age was 32. By 2050, it will be 45 - which means that an increasing percentage of Chinese will be elderly. By 2025, one in five Chinese will be older than 65. By 2050, that ratio will be 1 in 4.

The takeaway from these grim numbers is that China is going to have 330 million senior citizens with no one to care for them and no way to pay for their care. As demographer Nick Eberstadt sorrowfully observes, it is "a slow-motion humanitarian tragedy already underway." [...]

Declining population is a problem for societies and economies. Historically, they do not remain stable when populations contract. But the bigger problem for China is what to do with its elderly.

The government's pension system is almost nonexistent, and One Child has eliminated the extended family as a support system - which will leave the Chinese with a few very bad options.

There will only be 2.3 workers to support each retiree, so the government will be forced to either: (1) Substantially cut spending in areas such as defense and public works in order to shift resources to care for the elderly; or (2) impose radically higher tax burdens on younger workers to pay for the elderly.

The first option risks China's international and military ambitions; the second risks revolution.'s hard to see fretting about a China threat as anything but lingering racial obsession.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 21, 2008 6:42 PM
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