Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

China's Demographic Outlook to 2040 and Its Implications

Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

China's Demographic Outlook to 2040 and Its Implications

Article excerpt

For any serious attempt to assess China's future outlook, an examination of the country's population prospects is not only advisable but absolutely indispensable. There are two reasons for this.

First, of all areas of inquiry about China's future that might be of interest in academic, business, and policy circles, China's demographic future is perhaps the least uncertain over the coming generation. The reason, quite simply, is that the overwhelming majority of the people who will be living in China in (say) the year 2040 are already alive, living there today. Population projections are far from error-free, but if we are trying to peer ahead a couple of decades, they are most assuredly more reliable (and empirically grounded) than corresponding projections of economic change, much less political or technological change. (1)

Second, demographics and demographic change actually matter--to economic performance and social development and in some measure arguably to such things as military potential, political stability, and international security. This is not to invoke the "demography is destiny" claim, often attributed to the 19th-century French polymath Auguste Comte. A less forid, more immediately defensible reformulation of that aphorism would be that "demographics slowly but unforgivingly alter the realm of the possible." In the following pages, I try to show just how the realm of the possible is being reshaped in China by impending demographic changes over the decades immediately ahead.

China's Current and Future Population: What We Know and How We Know It

Before presenting the demographic projections underpinning this report, we are obliged to address two basic questions about China's demographic outlook: What do we know and how do we know it? Answering these questions requires us to discuss data limitations today and the intrinsic limitations of demographic projections for tomorrow.

Consider first the limits of current Chinese population data. Vastly more population information is available for China today than was for most of the Maoist era, when a virtual statistical blackout prevailed. China today also has trained and groomed a large cadre of top-rate demographers and population economists who work in the nation's universities, state-sponsored think tanks, and government. On the other hand, China has not yet achieved complete or near-complete vital registration, meaning that analysts must rely mainly on reconstructions of trends from censuses and "mini-censuses" (2)--and these counts are far from error-free.

Many errors in China's population data are essentially politically induced; the data are deformed by mass misreporting due to ordinary people's attempts to avoid the harsh consequences of Beijing's various population control policies (using that term broadly). With regard to Chinese household registration data (which are derived from a separate demographic system run by the Ministry of Public Security), the 2010 census indicated that at least 13 million Chinese citizens lacked legal identity papers because they were born "out of hukou"--that is, outside the locality that the state mandates to be their residence (3) (more on the hukou system shortly). But that guesstimate is based on official assumptions about China's true population totals, and China's vital statistics, census returns, and sample population surveys have undercounted the nation's actual numbers for decades due to Beijing's heinous One-Child Policy and the familial incentives it established for birth concealment.

The United Nations Population Division (UNPD) currently suggests that the 2010 China census estimate missed the mark by about 30 million, even after its own internal undercount adjustments, and that it may have failed to enumerate well over a quarter of all female children under 15 years of age. (4) From the 1982 China census onward, population totals and sex ratios for given birth years from one census to the next have proved unstable for babies, children, and youth. …

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