Is Xi Administration Looking at Actual Situation?

This is not the time for believing that the number of births can be increased or decreased by a single call from the government. To cope with its declining population, China needs to take into account the mistakes of the past and implement policies that are in line with society’s actual situation.

The Chinese government has announced that the country’s population was 1.41175 billion as of the end of 2022, which is 850,000 fewer people than the previous year.

This is the first population decrease for China in 61 years, since 1961 when Mao Zedong was in power. At that time, the decline was temporary as the failure of Mao’s Great Leap Forward campaign aiming to buoy industrial production resulted in a major famine that killed numerous people. This time, the population decline is largely due to structural factors and is expected to continue.

According to the Chinese government’s 2019 projection, the population drop was expected to start in 2030. The fact that the decline has come eight years earlier might indicate that the government failed to accurately grasp the reality of population decline and miscalculated its projection.

The biggest factor in the population drop is the falling birth rate. Last year, the number of births in China was 9.56 million, the lowest since the country was founded in 1949. A declining birth rate due to such reasons as women’s advancement in society and rising educational costs is a phenomenon widely seen in developed countries, but in China’s case, the decline is also largely attributable to its unique circumstances.

Out of concerns over a population explosion, China introduced in 1979 the one-child policy, which did not allow families to have a second child. This restriction remained in place until the end of 2015, and a third child became allowed only two years ago.

In the meantime, the working-age population began to decline in the early 2010s. It is evident that the delay in rectifying the one-child policy led to a rapid decline in births.

The adverse effects of this policy remain today. It has been pointed out that the priority given to boys when the one-child policy was in place has brought about an imbalance in the ratio of men to women of marriageable age. This imbalance has made it difficult for men to get married as there are significantly fewer women.

The administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping is promoting support measures such as extending maternity leave periods and creating new childcare leave systems, but its measures appear to be insufficient compared with those in developed countries. As China’s population is aging faster than that of Japan, which was once considered to have the world’s fastest rate, it is urgent to tackle the development of medical, nursing care and pension systems, for which efforts are lagging behind.

However, unless the administration takes steps based on an examination of past population policies and sincere reflection on these policies, a sense of serious population crisis is unlikely to be felt among the public.

Faced with the falling birth rate and an aging population, China has found it difficult to expect the rapid growth that it once enjoyed by leveraging its abundant labor force and huge consumer market. It is imperative to carry out structural reforms and improve productivity in line with social changes. The outcome of such efforts will affect the entire global economy, including Japan.

The Xi administration, which has poured its energy into a policy line of making China a strong nation through military expansion and maritime advancement, may need to shift its focus to maintaining domestic stability.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 23, 2023)