China’s Economic Engine Is Running Out of Fuel (YI FUXIAN, 12/22/23, Project Syndicate)

[H]owever appealing to China’s leaders Lin’s economic forecasts may be, they have proved wildly wrong, not least because they fail to account for China’s bleak demographic outlook. Both a higher median age and a higher proportion of people over 64 are negatively correlated with growth, and on both points, China is doing far worse than the three countries to which Lin compares it.

When Germany’s GDP per capita was equivalent to 22.6% that of the US, its median age was 34. In Japan and South Korea, the median age was just 24. After those 16 subsequent years of strong growth, the median age in the three countries stood at 35, 30, and 32, respectively. Contrast that with China, where the median age was 41 in 2019, and will reach 49 in 2035.

Likewise, at the beginning of the 16-year period to which Lin refers, the proportion of people over 64 in Germany, Japan, and South Korea was 8%, 5%, and 4%, respectively; at the end, it stood at 12%, 7%, and 7%. In China, that proportion was 13% in 2019 and will be 25% in 2035. In the 16 years after the proportion of people over 64 reached 13% in Germany (in 1966) and Japan (in 1991), these economies’ average annual growth was only 2.9% and 1.1%, respectively.

Moreover, in Germany, Japan, and South Korea, the labor force (aged 15-59) began to decline in the 12th, 38th, and 31st years after their per capita GDP equaled 22.6% that of the US. China’s began to decline in 2012.

If one imagines China’s economy as an airplane, the 1978 launch of the policy of reform and opening up would have been what ignited the fuel – the young workers – that enabled the economy to take off and fly at high speeds for three decades. But, in 2012, the fuel began to run low, causing the plane to decelerate.

Instead of adjusting to their new reality, the Chinese authorities – heeding the advice of economists like Lin – continued to lean on the throttle by investing heavily in real estate, thereby creating a massive property bubble.