As China’s peaking population ages, can Beijing maintain stability?

China, the world’s most populous nation, is experiencing declining births and an aging society, conspicuous amid its 1.4 billion people. Coping with the unprecedented speed of aging and maintaining economic growth and social stability will not be easy.

China has released the results of its national population census, taken once every 10 years. The population increased by 72.05 million over the past 10 years, but the average annual growth rate slowed from 0.57% to 0.53%, the lowest since the statistics started being recorded.

The percentage of the population aged 65 or older to the total population increased by 4.63 percentage points to 13.5%. According to international standards, an aging society is defined as one with an elderly population of over 7%, an aged society as one with the same demographic taking up over 14% and a super-aged society as one with the elderly making up over 21% of the total population. China will become an aged society by the end of this year.

The speed of aging is measured by the number of years it takes to reach each stage. It took 24 years, from 1970 to 1994, for Japan to become an aged society, which was considered the fastest in the world. China’s elderly population reached 7% in 2000, meaning the nation is certain to surpass Japan’s pace of becoming an aged society.

On the other hand, the number of births last year fell by almost 20% from the previous year to 12 million, the largest drop since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The total fertility rate, an estimated average number of children a woman has in her lifetime, also dropped to 1.3, the same level as Japan.

China’s population was expected to peak around 2030, but the possibilities exist that this will arrive in the near future and it will be overtaken by India, the world’s second most populous country. Isn’t the situation moving toward what the Chinese government did not anticipate?

For many years, China had forcibly controlled its population with its one-child policy. Five years ago, it began allowing people to have a second child, but the number of births has not increased, partly because of the rising costs of education and delays in improving the treatment of farmers who have migrated to cities.

The workforce is also shrinking, as the percentage of the working-age population of 15- to 64-year-olds has dropped to 68% from the 74% marked 10 years ago. The peaking population and the decline in the number of workers mean that the conventional growth model, which relied on an abundant labor force and a huge consumer market, is reaching its limits. The expansion of social security costs is also a major risk.

The Chinese government is considering completely lifting birth restrictions and raising the age of eligibility for receiving pension payments. In March, Beijing announced that it will elevate its measures to combat the aging of society to a national strategy. This indicates a strong sense of crisis over the delay in taking measures to prevent society from aging.

China has spent its national strength for military expansion and maritime advances, among other affairs, following a policy of making the nation a superpower, and has allocated a huge amount of its budget to controlling its people and maintaining public order. The delay in the development of social security can be said to be a negative effect from this situation.

If China does not improve its systems for childcare support, nursing care, medical services and pensions, as well as eliminate disparities, it will not be able to maintain long-term stability. The turmoil in Chinese society will also spill over into the global economy and international politics. Isn’t it time for President Xi Jinping’s administration to reassess its priorities?

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on May 31, 2021.