Staunton, October 17 – Many Russians believe that China because of the size of its population is just waiting to seize Siberia and the Russian Far East, but a Russian analysis of the demographic situation there suggests that is highly unlikely and that the real threat to Russia will come from demography-driven social and political instability in China.
In a commentary on Nakanune.ru, Yevgeny Chernyshov says that most Russians have only the most superficial knowledge of Chinese demography and assume that the Chinese population is growing just as rapidly as it was earlier. In fact, that is not the case, and the slowdown has enormous consequences for Chinese stability (nakanune.ru/articles/19549/).
Between 1945 and 1980, China’s population doubled from 500 million to a billion, but over the next 35 years, it has grown by only 360 million or 36 percent, as a result of Beijing’s one child policy and the impact of modernization and urbanization, the Russian commentator says.
To be sure, the Chinese population will continue to grow because in China, “fewer people are dying than are being born even at today’s low fertility levels.” But that isn’t the only consequence of this change: the average age of the Chinese population is rising rapidly. The median age in 1970 was 20; now, it is 37; and by 2050, it will be, according to the UN, 45.
That means, Chernyshov says, that “in the long term, China can forget about counting on hundreds of millions of young and inexpensive workers,” a trend that will have an impact on the prospects for economic growth because China’s competitiveness up to now has depended on having relatively inexpensive labor inputs.
China’s possibilities of increasing the birthrate are also limited by the fact that “in China as in Russia, a large part of the population is concentrated on a small portion of the territory” of country. Migration within the country is adding to that burden, and the amount of outmigration to Russia is much smaller and less threatening than many assume.
Two years ago, Chernyshov continues, “for the first time in the last 50 years … the size of the number of the working population in China declined.” That will continue given the age and gender distribution in the population and very low fertility rates, 1.55 children per woman. Already ever age cohort under 25 is smaller than the one just older.
If one looks out over the next few decades and even with the optimistic assumption that Beijing can boost the fertility rate slightly, China’s population will grow until the mid-2020s and then fall to 1.2 billion in 2060, at which point it will no longer be the most populous country in the world.
Those prospects, the Russian analyst says, have already prompted some Chinese scholars to declare that “China has fallen into ‘a serious demographic crisis,’” thus using a term for that country that few Russians can even imagine doing. But it is entirely appropriate, according to the Nakanune.ru commentator.
The ration of pensioners to workers is growing rapidly and will continue to do so. It now stands at five to one, but by 2030, it will be only two to one. As a result, the average age of Chinese will rise from 37 to 44 by mid-century. Raising money to pay for pensions is going to impose an increasing burden on Chinese workers.
“Considering the demographic dynamics of China,” he says, “one cannot have any doubt that in the near future, the United States will try to destabilize China” by spreading slogans about the higher taxes that the Chinese are going to have to pay. In that event, what is happening in Hong Kong will look like “only the first leaf.”
Moreover, Chernyshov says, “a slowing or even stoppage of economic growth in China will inevitably have an impact on the economy of Russia, which is interested in a growing and not a stagnating China.”
China thus faces a serious problem: how to “prepare the population for economically difficult times” in such a way that they will not make any “political demands.” The Chinese leadership understand this, and their problem is bigger than ever before because of the large number of people who grew up as only children.
Such people, the Russian analyst says, “have a much more weakly developed sense of gratitude, unselfishness, mutual assistance, concerns about others, and other important moral qualities which tie a society together.” They are “physically and psychologically weak and capricious” and “much less trusting and worthy of trust” than others.
Consequently, Chernyshov says, “if Russia does indeed face a Chinese threat, then it is more likely to occur if under the weight of its social problems, China is drawn into a cycle of internal disturbances,” a possibility which no one in Moscow or elsewhere should discount as impossible.