In my last post I drew on Lyman Stone’s excellent article in Foreign Policy to discuss the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to increase the Han Chinese population at the expense of the various Chinese ethnic minorities. Today I return that article to illustrate some of China’s severe demographic problems, which we must consider when thinking about China’s actions and our response to them.

The first demographic issue facing the Chinese Communist Party is the country’s lack of babies. When the 2010 census results came to the government’s attention it realised how deep China’s demographic problems were and reacted accordingly. By 2016 the one-child policy was removed and replaced with a two-child limit.

Although the reaction of the CCP is plain to see, what isn’t clear is how widespread the problem was that inspired that reaction. There is a lack of transparent and reliable data about Chinese demographics which has led to public disagreement among demographers about China’s birth rate and total population.

For example, the demographer Yi Fuxian has argued that China’s official population figures could be overstated by as much as 115 million people (nearly 10 per cent), while the UN database of fertility statistics range from 1.1 children per woman (from administrative data) to 1.7 (from hospital data) or from 1 to 1.8, based upon various sample and family surveys. Those who argue for the lower end of fertility rates (around 1-1.3) maintain that the abrupt about face in relation to the one-child policy by the CCP is evidence for their position.

However, resting the strength of one’s argument on what the Chinese government does assumes that the Chinese government itself knows what the true position is. But this isn’t necessarily true. Too many local governments have incentives to lie in either direction (to get more funding allocations for schools or hospitals or alternatively to appear compliant with family planning policies). Civil registration data is incomplete while all levels of government are too politically invested in fertility policies to allow data transparency.

Whatever the true numbers are, the relaxation of the one-child policy has failed to increase China’s birth rates. This has left China’s policymakers and strategic planners with a dilemma  similar to the one facing Japan: a shrinking pool of military recruits.

Looking at the number of males aged 15-34 (from which the vast majority of frontline military personnel come) China and its allies (Laos, Cambodia, Burma and North Korea) enjoyed an advantage of nearly 3:1 over the US and its Pacific allies (Canada, Australia, Japan and New Zealand) around the turn of the millennium. Since then the advantage has shrunk to 2:1. If the higher estimate of China’s fertility rates (around 1.7 children per woman) is correct and that rate is maintained for the rest of the century, then the advantage will shrink to 4:3 by the end of this century.

If, however, the fertility rate stays at a level around 1.3 children per woman, then the Chinese advantage in military aged manpower will disappear by 2080. If the demographers arguing that China’s population is at least 100 million people lower than we think it is then the crossover point would be even sooner: sometime in the 2050s.

These numbers explain why the CCP is so desperate to increase the number of Han Chinese. Without these relaxations of policies restricting family size, the concern is that the pool of potential recruits will continue to decline at a fast pace and that a greater proportion of these recruits would be made up of members of potentially suspect ethnic minorities.

But will these relaxations succeed in boosting China’s birth rate and alleviating its demographic problems? While childcare is difficult to find and expensive, there are not many policies designed to help Chinese families, such as financial support and maternity leave. At the other end of the age scale, there is also little social support for the large numbers of Chinese elderly. This means that the burden of supporting the elderly falls on children who usually don’t have siblings. This is a major reason why young Chinese do not wish to have children.

Without some radical shifts in budget priorities in Beijing it is unlikely that China’s birth rate will rise in the short to medium term. Its population decline and ageing will continue. The worry is that China’s leaders will realise this (without perhaps knowing the precise figures) and will fret that any population advantage that they have is rapidly slipping away. What geopolitical decisions they will take in light of this concern will be of utmost concern to us all (and especially to small Pacific nations at the bottom of the world…)

Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...