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The Population Threat to China's Prosperity

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

While the Chinese Communist government basks in China's economic success, several terrible authoritarian decisions made in Beijing put the country's stability and sustained prosperity at risk.


Though a forbidden public topic, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre haunts the government. Chinese citizens bitterly resent the massacre, its cloak of totalitarian silence and Beijing's continued police state repression.

Another terrible decision, the "one-child policy," enacted from 1979 to 2015, has produced a demographic "mega-trend": The world's most populous country, with 1.3 billion people, faces a population crisis that threatens its ability to sustain its vaunted prosperity.

There were numerous exceptions to the mandate of having one child per family. Some minority ethnic groups were not subject its restrictions. Han Chinese (the dominant ethnic group) in rural areas were allowed two children. Demographers argue functionally China had a "1.5-child" rule.

In 2015, Beijing terminated the one-child policy. It reinstated a version of the two-child policy in place from the mid-1960s to 1979.

China now permits larger families. But the damage has been done.

China's fertility rate in 2010 dropped to 1.5 children per woman; the zero population growth replacement rate is 2.1 children.

It's highly probable China will face the same "geriatric" economic conditions that already threaten Japan and several Western European countries: too few workers paying the pensions of retirees as well as shouldering their medical costs. By 2030, the median age in China will rise to 43. In 1980, the median was 23. In 2011, China had 925 million workers. By 2050, China's working-age population will fall by 225 million, about 23 percent of the projected population. Between 2040 and 2050, 25 percent of the population will be over 65 years old, retired and drawing pensions. The "squeezed" worker cohort must then support both pensioners and dependent young.


Technologists theorize increased automation may mitigate the worker shortage, but it won't solve it.

Wealth exacerbates China's government-inflicted conundrum. Worldwide, prosperous and educated couples tend to have fewer children. This trend applies to China.

Increasing wealth and personal lifestyle preferences played key roles in the fertility rate decline in Japan and highly developed Western countries. Japan's fertility rate is 1.4 children per woman. A recent study suggested that circa 2080 the Italian and German populations could decline by 50 percent. The same trend has begun to affect wealthy South Korea.

Choice is one thing. However, China's dictatorship relied on government intimidation and physical coercion to cut the birthrate. Concerned about overpopulation, Beijing used political stigmatization, stiff fines, compulsory sterilizations, abortions and infanticide to enforce the one-child policy.

The one-child limit created a marriage problem. In Chinese culture, an eldest son is prized. If limited to one child, families tend to abort girl babies. For Han Chinese born between 1981 and 2000, an imbalance exists between marriageable women and men. The official sex ratio in that cohort is roughly 106 males for every 100 females. That's bad, but the numbers are hazy. Some critics claim the actual male figure is between 115 and 120.

This imbalance has spawned social and criminal problems. "Bride traffickers" smuggle Southeast Asian women into China to marry Han Chinese men. If it sounds like a type of sex trafficking, it is.


In the 1950s and 1960s, melodramatic academics and some well-intended nongovernmental organizations concerned about food security in the developing world declared overpopulation was the world's greatest problem.

In 1968, as China began imposing family size restrictions, Paul Ehrlich's "The Population Bomb" appeared in print. Here's the gist of the doom-mongering tome: Ehrlich predicted global mass starvation in the 1970s and 1980s. To avert disaster, governments must immediately act to cut birthrates and limit population growth, lest overpopulation destroy Planet Earth. If voluntary controls don't limit population growth and resource depletion, people smarter than everyone else must use "compulsion."

China's Communist government did just that, to the regret and detriment of everyone in China.

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