China’s population

Peak toil

In this article about the impact of China’s one-child policy, we look at the shrinking working-age population.

ON JANUARY 18th the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) announced that the number of working-age Chinese shrank last year by a total of 3.45m. In the slow-moving world of demography, that is a big turning point. The mobilisation of Chinese labour over the past 35 years has shaken the world. Never before has the global economy benefited from such an addition of extra human exertion. Now the additions are over – and not just in China.

One statistical scruple must be acknowledged. In the past the NBS has counted anyone between 15 and 64 years old as of working age. That age range is consistent with international convention and China’s own statistical yearbook. But in announcing the decline last week, the NBS adopted a narrower definition: 15- to 59-year-olds. By doing so, it drew early attention to a demographic downturn that will soon apply to 15- to 64-year-olds and to the population as a whole. Ma Jiantang, head of the NBS, said he did not want the population data to be “drowned in a sea of figures” released at the same time.

The new statistics will amplify calls for reform of China’s one-child policy. Mr Ma reiterated his support for it, but also said that China should study “an appropriate, scientific population policy” in light of changing circumstances.

China’s one-child policy is not quite as strict as its name implies. Once all its exceptions are taken into account, it permits about 1.47 children per woman. If the policy were relaxed dramatically, would China’s population explode again? Clint Laurent of Global Demographics, a research firm, is often asked this by clients, some of whom hope to profit from a baby boom. But he has to disappoint them. He says the best contraception is “affluence and education”. Many Chinese women would not have a second child even if they were allowed to. And if all restrictions were lifted, the fertility rate would probably settle at about 1.62, according to S. Philip Morgan of Duke University and his co-authors.

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