“Xi must be in a panic. His primary form of diplomacy is to intimidate others. If you’re going to have the world’s largest economy, if you’re going to be the most populous society, yeah, you can intimidate others. But if your country is rapidly shrinking, and that’s what’s going to happen to China, then no one’s going to be particularly scared.”
A Gathering Storm
These are the words of China scholar, lawyer, and journalist Gordon Chang. Mr. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China (2001) and The Great U.S.-China Tech War (2020).
Every aspiring author knows that making hyperbolic statements is an effective way to sell books. Still, a surprising variety of publications have swung around to Mr. Chang’s point of view, including at least one unlikely coupling, Fox News and CNN. Recently, the New York Times and the Washington Post have done lengthy articles describing China’s imminent peril.
They all agree that the cause of China’s coming economic disaster can be summed up in one word—population.
A Myth and a Reality
Many modern Americans may be surprised at China’s precarious state. After all, for the last four decades, the popular analysis has been that China is a growing economic powerhouse with ever-lengthening tentacles in nations worldwide, including the United States. Within the last few weeks, American news watchers saw news of a massive Chinese “spy balloon” taking its leisurely course over U.S. missile installations in the Great Plains. Some coverage mentioned that the Chinese had purchased extensive farmland holdings near those installations.
Yet, the population figures are compelling. Fox reports, “A United Nations forecast shows China’s population decreasing 100 million by 2050 and 600 million by 2100.” They are well on their way. In 2022, China’s population fell by 850,000. That same year, Chinese women gave birth to about half the number of babies that they did in 2016—9.6 million vs. 17.9 million. If the 2022 tally is accurate (and figures coming out of China are always doubtful), the birth rate was half the replacement rate.
What can explain this demographic disaster?
Bureaucratic Errors and Pessimism
First, the disastrous “one-child policy” that dominated the nation from the eighties until roughly 2015. The myth that China’s population was too large to be fed goes back at least to 1900. Therefore, China’s Communist leaders deliberately tried to shrink the population by limiting each set of parents to one child. However, this policy had one massive unintended consequence. Since Chinese parents depend on their sons to provide for them as they age, most want their one child to be a boy. Girls were selectively aborted, adopted by couples in other countries, or abandoned to starvation.
Second, many conditions indicate that much of China’s current population is deeply pessimistic about the future. They suffer from the emptiness of materialism that teaches there is nothing beyond material things. The spiritual appetites are thus neglected. Among China’s young adults, this has resulted in three phrases that make their way around social media—laying flat, let it rot, and the last generation. All three indicate that young Chinese see little, if anything, to work for because the future, in their estimations, is incredibly bleak. Insider quoted a young man in Shanghai, Dylann Wang.
“There are many things that make me think my generation is likely to be China’s last, or its last ‘good’ one. None of my friends want to have children. And I, for one, don’t want to bring a new life into a world like this, and for them to grow up to be lonely, aimless, and another useless statistic in the country’s birth rate.”
A Marriage Crisis
Third, marriage in China is, in the words of the Washington Post, “in freefall.” China’s “first marriages” rate has fallen by half since 2013. There are at least three reasons for this precipitous drop. First, marriage has always been an expression of optimism, tending to increase in prosperous times and decrease when economic prospects are dim. Second, as noted above, the one-child policy has sharply diminished the number of marriageable women in China.
CNN relates a third reason, which will sound familiar to Western feminists. “These issues are exacerbated by entrenched gender roles that often place the bulk of housework and child care on women—who, more educated and financially independent than ever, are increasingly unwilling to bear this unequal burden. Women have also reported facing discrimination at work based on their marital or parental status, with employers often reluctant to pay maternity leave.”
Population Growth and National Power
Those who study history know that increased national power is accompanied by population growth. So how can it be that China is growing stronger while its population is in freefall? There are only two possible explanations. First, the descriptions of China’s growing strength are overblown—lies designed to scare citizens and policymakers in nations that China sees as its enemies.
The second explanation is that China’s growing power is only temporary—a house of cards that will soon fall. Xi Jinping radiates optimism about China’s growing influence. Still, many fear that his knowledge of just how fragile China’s future is may drive him to irresponsible acts. This is especially critical in the economic realm, the basis of much of China’s increasing power since the seventies. An aging population creates financial strains that are difficult for any bureaucracy—even a totalitarian one—to handle.
Xi has, in the words of CNN, “pledged to ‘improve the population development strategy’ and ease economic pressure on families.” However, his difficulties will be immense. He faces massive headwinds, represented by the social, economic and demographic factors described above.
“We are the Last Generation”
As an example, consider an anecdote from the Washington Post. It describes how despair among young adults threatens China’s future.
“[The] faceless hazmat-clad health police try to bully a young man out of his apartment and off to a quarantine camp. He refuses to leave.
“Don’t you understand,” they warn, “if you don’t comply, bad things can happen to your family for three generations?”
“Sorry,” he replies mildly. “We are the last generation.” In other words, save your threats for someone who cares.