This week our China news focuses on a debate that is also global. What is the ‘right’ size for a population? Some think the global population should be allowed to decline for environmental reasons. Politicians and businesspeople are worried that economic growth will suffer if there are too few designers, producers and consumers. Our first article reflects this continuing debate inside China.
Li Tie, chief economist of the China Centre for Urban and Small Town Reform and Development, recently published an article “Recognition of Population and Aging”.
A few days ago, we asked Li Tie to answer three questions. The first is: “Since you have repeatedly said “China is overpopulated”, then please answer how small China’s population would need to be not to be overpopulated. What is the basis for your argument?
Li Tie’s answer is:
China’s overpopulation is an indisputable reality. Now that there are 1.4 billion people, we must do our best to solve all kinds of problems related to population in economic and social development.
Li Tie said that “China’s overpopulation is an indisputable reality”, but he did not give any basis for this, so we don’t know what criteria Li Tie uses to judge “China’s overpopulation”?
If we judge “China’s overpopulation” based purely on the number of people, then is it possible that, if China is divided into dozens of countries, there is no “overpopulation” problem? It can be seen that it is absurd to judge “China’s overpopulation” based purely on overall population size.
If we judge “China’s overpopulation” based on population density, then Japan, South Korea, Germany and other countries have higher population densities than China. These countries do not consider their countries to be “overpopulated” and are encouraging fertility. Thus, if the population density is used as the standard, it is impossible to draw the conclusion that “China is overpopulated”.
The second question we asked is: what will China’s fertility rate be after the surge of second-child births ends?
Li Tie’s answer is:
In so many articles I have discussed with you, the lowest fertility rate I have always used is around 1.5, without using any special data. This proves that I am not opposed to the view of declining fertility rates. I think this is an objective reality.
Li Tie did not actually answer our second question, but only expressed his views on China’s past fertility rate. We have little difference with Li Tie on this point. According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s fertility rates in 2018 and 2019 were 1.49 and 1.47 respectively. This is partly because there was a surge of two-child births. After the surge, China’s fertility rate will drop to about 1.1.
If the fertility rate remains at 1.1 for a long time, this means that with every generation, the number of births will be halved. In this case, encouraging birth is the correct population policy.
But Li Tie said:
If your encouragement of childbirth becomes a reality, how can the problems of medical care, education and basic public services be solved after the birth of those who are beyond the capacity of society?
Li Tie’s understanding of the Chinese people’s willingness to give birth was true a few decades ago. He did not realize that the average Chinese people’s willingness to give birth was already extremely low. He thought that once childbearing was encouraged, the number of births would increase substantially. He did not see that China Japan, South Korea, and Singapore in Taiwan and China’s neighbouring countries have strongly encouraged fertility for many years, but the fertility rate is still far below the replacement level.
Generally speaking, the fertility rate is lower than the willingness to give birth. Moreover, for urban working-class workers, many young couples are under great pressure to raise a child. Even if they want to have a second child, considering that raising one more child requires a lot of money and energy, they are discouraged from having a second child.
The experience of other countries has confirmed that the actual fertility rate is lower than the willingness to give birth. With reference to the situation in Japan and South Korea, according to China’s average ideal number of children of 1.96 and the average number of children who intend to have children at 1.75, if fertility is fully liberalized, the actual fertility rate in China is likely to be only about 1.1.
The third question we raise is: Do you think China should fully liberalise fertility now?
Li Tie’s answer is:
As the fertility rate declines, the policy has been adjusted from the ‘single two-child’ to the ‘full two-child’. It can be expected that there will be more room for liberalization in the future. However, at present and for a long time in the future, China will never adopt the so-called ‘encourage childbirth’ policy. This is based on the reality that the population is still large.
Li Tie’s answers the wrong question. We are asking Li Tie whether we should fully liberalize fertility, rather than asking him to predict what kind of population policy China will implement in the future. What population policy China will implement in the future can neither be decided by us nor by Li Tie, but by the decision makers. As scholars, we have the responsibility to put forward policy recommendations, so any demographer should be responsible for answering this question: Should China now fully liberalize fertility?
Although Li Tie did not explicitly answer our third question, we speculate from many of his articles that he is in favour of the full liberalization of fertility in China in the future but does not approve of it now. As for when to let go of fertility, Li Tie said, “Once the trend of excessive population growth is eased, birth control will be gradually released until it is fully liberalized.”
We reply: Isn’t China’s rapid population growth being eased now? It is about to enter negative growth. So why does Li Tie worry about the “excessive growth” of China’s population? Li Tie said:
Maybe you were not born in the same era as me. It was an era when the population had uncontrolled births. At that time, each family had an average of 4-5 children.
Li Tie was born in 1955, when China’s fertility rate was indeed high. In fact, any country will experience rapid population growth for a period of time after a long period of war. After World War II, due to the advancement of medical technology, the mortality rate was greatly reduced, and the average life expectancy was extended. The population of all countries in the world has generally experienced rapid growth. From a global perspective, the population growth rate of China during that time was not outstanding. Fertility among young people in rural China is far different from that of decades ago, but Li Tie’s habitual thinking still believes that rural people’s willingness to have children is very high.
China has been able to achieve rapid economic growth since 1978, on the one hand because of reform and opening up, and on the other hand, because of the large population born between 1950 and 1970, which has brought abundant human resources and resources to China since the reform and opening up.
Li Tie went on to say:
In that era (referring to the time when Li Tie was born), raising so many people would greatly reduce the family’s standard of living.
Without hard work, how can there be gains? Raising multiple children will indeed reduce the family’s standard of living in the short term; however, in the long run, the value created by the children after they grow up and participate in work will be greater than the cost of raising children.
China’s population will enter a negative growth in the next few years, and since China’s fertility rate has been below the replacement level for nearly 30 years, it is almost impossible to increase to the replacement level in the foreseeable future.
Therefore, as the Chinese population declines, there may be no end in sight. How to prevent China’s population from declining in the future? This is a major issue concerning the survival of the Chinese nation. In the long run, to avoid the demise of the nation, raising the fertility rate to a replacement level must happen sooner or later. In our view – the sooner the better.
Is there a shortage of people in a populous province? Births in seven provinces and cities has declined for three consecutive years. Our second story focuses on a large rural province. Writers and experts are convinced that population policy needs to change to encourage more births.
Recently, the Henan Health Commission responded to the suggestion of the Provincial People’s Congress: “as soon as possible to formulate a population development strategy in Henan Province and to liberalize fertility as soon as possible”. This has aroused attention.
The Henan Health Commission stated in its reply that since the implementation of the comprehensive two-child policy on January 1, 2016, the province’s comprehensive two-child policy has been implemented steadily, and the population growth is basically in line with expectations. However, affected by many factors, births have been declining for three consecutive years and will continue to go down. This poses challenges to the long-term balanced development of the province’s population and sustainable economic and social development.
Is there still a “shortage of people” in such a populous province? (94 million). This has triggered a heated discussion on the Internet.
In fact, the continuous decline in births in Henan is not an isolated case. The birth population in seven provinces and cities has continued to decline.
On January 1, 2016, the comprehensive two-child policy was implemented. In the first year of the implementation of the policy, the total number of births in China reached the highest level since 2000. The number of births that year reached 17.86 million, an increase of 1.31 million over the previous year.
Henan also showed the same trend. In the first year of the comprehensive two-child policy, the birth population in Henan rebounded to 1.4261 million, an increase of 66,100 from 2015. However, this trend stopped abruptly in 2017, and the decline accelerated in 2018. From 2017 to 2019, Henan’s birth rate decreased by 26,000, 130,000, and 70,000 respectively from the previous year.
Can the population weakness be reversed?
This is actually a microcosm of the continuous decline in the national birth population, which represents different types of demographic characteristics.Lu Jiehua, a professor in the Department of Sociology at Peking University
He said that Shanghai, Beijing, and Jiangsu are developed areas and urbanised. The birth rate is relatively low, so the population continues to decline. But the population structure is still “younger” because of the support of non-locals.
Shandong, Henan, Hunan and other places represent another type. They are not only provinces with large populations, but also provinces with a large population exodus. With the loss of young people and the continued decline in new-borns, the aging problem in these areas requires particular attention.
Take Shandong as an example. In 2019, its total dependency ratio has exceeded 50%, which is equivalent to an average of one person for every two working-age people. The population dependency pressure ranks among the top in the country.
Will the continued downward trend in the birth population in these areas continue in the future? The combined effects of factors such as the reduction in the number of women of childbearing age, especially the number of women of childbearing age, the decline in the population will continue.
To achieve replacement between generations, it is necessary to achieve an average fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman. In other words, even having two children is not enough.
Can the population decline be reversed? Wang Guangzhou said that women of childbearing age who originally had a child between 20-22 years old may not have their first child until about 30 years old. The delay in childbirth will reduce the possibility of having more children.
Wang Guangzhou suggested that the top priority is to solve the problem of declining fertility rates as soon as possible, so that more people want and dare to give birth. More importantly, supporting measures to solve the worries of young people’s education, medical care, and occupational equality are vital.
(Our writers stand firmly on the side of population reduction. The problems caused by fewer people in the world are far easier to solve than those of having too many. In other articles, writers fear the advance of automation and artificial intelligence because of their effect on jobs! Simplistic maybe – but is this not at least one of the answers to declining populations?)