Fushun in Liaoning province. Image: Sidney Leng

Northeastern China (东北) is a largely forgotten area in the nation. It is called the nation’s Rust Belt, and many of its previously glorious industrial cities are often compared to Detroit.

Cities in the Northeast are known for an extremely rapidly growing ageing population, a continuously depressed local economy as well as “cabbage-price real estate prices”, a phenomenon unique to Northeastern Rust Belt cities such as Hegang in Heilongjiang Province, which earlier this year was reported to have apartments selling at prices as low as a laughable 20000RMB (3000USD), a rarity in a country known for ever skyrocketing real estate prices.

So why is the Northeast in such a sorry state? Demography might have the answer, and more importantly, what is unfolding in the Northeast may be a sign of what is to come for the rest of China in less than a decade’s time, and shape much of Northeast Asia’s future.

One of the main reasons for the Northeast’s depression is its ultralow birth rate. In fact, the three provinces making up China’s Northeast: namely Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang, may well have the world’s lowest Total Fertility Rates.

A report by China’s usually nationalistic mouthpiece the Global Times admitted that in 2015, the Northeast’s TFR as a whole may be as low as 0.55, an extreme-low fertility rate probably unheard of ever in human history.

This is a substantial drop even from already shocking figures obtained in China’s 2010 National Population Census, which stated that Liaoning’s TFR was 0.74, Jilin 0.76 and Heilongjiang 0.75. To put that into perspective, the TFR needed for population replacement is 2.1, and Japan’s TFR in 2017 is 1.43.

Northeastern China’s TFR in 2015 is at a quarter of the replacement fertility rate and barely 40% of Japan’s TFR. This can only mean total population collapse and rapid depopulation throughout this century, in a vast area of nearly a million square kilometers which is also the heart of Northeast Asia, with a total population of more than 100 million people.

Furthermore, the Northeast’s TFR has been consistently lower than 1 since around 2000 and continues to drop, with absolutely no sign of recovery.

Even ethnic minorities in the Northeast are not exempt from this shockingly low world-record-breaking birth rate. Usually China’s ethnic minorities have had a relatively higher birth rate, which is mostly thanks to the exemptions they enjoyed from the one-child policy, and they were mostly spared from its worst excesses.

However, in the Northeast, ethnic minorities have the same ultra-low fertility rates: the Manchu, one of China’s most populous minorities and previous rulers of the entire Northeast (more aged readers may be familiar with the term “Manchuria” which roughly correlates with the current Northeast) had, in 2010, a TFR of 0.924.

Ethnic Koreans (known as Chaoxianzu in China, Joseonjok in South Korea) are languishing at a TFR of 0.622 in 2010. These two ethnic minorities are almost exclusively residing in the Northeast, and these fertility rates, coupled with emigration to South Korea, mean that by the end of this century, there may be no Chinese ethnic Korean citizens left.

Manchus will also suffer extremely rapid depopulation and may be on the verge of disappearing by early next century.

All of this has already shown its effects on the Northeast. In 2017, the Northeast region as a whole shrank 370,000 in total population and its most populous province Liaoning has had a natural population decrease since 2011.

The economy in the entire region is in free fall: the only few negative growth provinces in the country have been the Northeastern three for years, in a country known for possibly exaggerated GDP growth stats.

Many cities in the region are completely devoid of young people, with most youths leaving the region for good once they have completed high school or university.

Recently news broke out that all three provinces’ old age pensions are at breaking point already and they are only standing due to vast amounts of fund injections made by the Central Government, which in turn, took the funds from China’s much more youthful southern provinces, in particular the economic powerhouse of Guangdong.

However, with the whole country as whole ageing rapidly, the sustainability of this glaringly temporary solution is questionable, to put it lightly.

So why has the Northeast reached such an unbelievable demographic breaking point? To be fair, the region had its glory days during the Manchukuo era and in the early days of the People’s Republic. It had the country’s most advanced industrial and transport infrastructure which are legacies of Japanese and Tsarist Russian colonisation, one of the most educated populaces in the nation as well as the most fertile virgin lands waiting to be developed for agriculture.

Population in the area had boomed since the Late Qing era thanks to massive migration from inland Chinese provinces, especially Shandong, coupled with high birth rates. Communist China’s first self-made automobile and its crown jewel of steel factories were all from the Northeast. Indeed, the region was dubbed “the Elder Son of the Republic”.

However, the Elder Son also aged very quickly. By 1982, all of the Northeast had already hit sub-replacement fertility, which is more than 10 years earlier than the rest of China. However, the absurd one-child policy was still imposed on the already low fertility Northeasterners and ironically, it was more rigidly enforced here than anywhere else because the region was, back then, China’s most urbanized thanks to its early development, and cities were where the one-child policy mostly applied.

The majority of Northeasterners were also employees of state owned enterprises, since all of the industrial region’s factories were state owned, and hence the power of the Family Planning Commission here was more powerful than anywhere else.

All of this coupled with an economic depression caused by the massive retrenchments in Northeastern factories throughout the 1990s during China’s state owned enterprises reforms meant that the Northeast’s last straw had broken. Population collapse became inevitable and the process has only accelerated since then.

So what does this mean for China and even the world? Well, straddled between powerful neighbours such as Russia and North Korea, the region is extremely strategically important. However, in the long run, China’s ability to hold the region is in serious doubt- the birth rates mean within a couple of generations, the 100 million people currently living there will shrink to a minuscule number.

This should alleviate Russia’s long unfounded fears of a growing Chinese population in its Far East regions, though Russia itself suffers from rapid depopulation, especially in the Far East, despite Putin’s best attempts at raising the birth rate. Most chillingly, the Northeast is only a couple of decades ahead of the rest of China in its demographic collapse. By midcentury, much of the rest of the country will probably follow suit unless the birth rate is stabilized.

The one exception in this entire region will, amazingly, once again be North Korea. Whilst Jilin Province in China is at a TFR of 0.76, neighbouring Ryanggang province of the DPRK is triple that, at above replacement fertility of 2.36, according to 2014 UNFPA data.

Chagang Province, another one of Jilin’s neighbours in the DPRK, is at replacement fertility level of 2.13. Undoubtedly, these areas have the highest birth rates in all of Northeast Asia. In the long run, this may mean only North Koreans will remain in the region, and the repercussions for that are obvious.

This might mean that by the time this century ends, much of Northeastern Asia may return to its old virgin forests, with only the remaining Amur tiger patrolling its vast wilderness. Nor can one rule out an expanding North Korea, thanks to what is likely to be the world’s most astounding self-implosion in demographic history.

William Huang is an avid researcher into China and East Asia’s looming demographic crisis.  He also aims to raise his voice for the sanctity of life wherever and whenever he can.

William Huang is a product of the one-child policy as he is the only son in the family. Born and raised in China, it is only when he went overseas to study that he had an epiphany, realizing just how much...