Realities challenge long-term balanced population growth

By YUAN XIN / 05-16-2019 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The consistently huge population size is the key to understanding China’s demographic problems and advancing long-term balanced population development. Photo: FILE


Long-term balanced population growth is an ideal state of socioeconomic and resource development in human society. It is in essence a state in which the population grows at moderate rates and within narrow ranges in the long term. Moderate population growth and scale is ideal for demographic development. Long-term excessively fast growth, shrinking and frequent ups and downs are all deviations from balanced development.


Promoting long-term balanced population development is fundamental for the demographic strategic planning of China. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, demographic development has undergone three peaks, two troughs and one drop over the past seven decades. Currently the basic conditions of the population have restricted the long-term balanced demographic development.

First of all, the population base is huge. After a demographic transition, China has entered an era of low fertility and slowing population growth, marking a relief in pressure on the population. Nonetheless, the fundamental reality of an enormous population size has remained unchanged.

According to the Statistical Communiqué of the 2018 National Economics and Social Development, China had a total population of 1.395 billion by the end of 2018, remaining the most populous country in the world.

In World Population Prospects: 2017 Revision, the United Nations projected that the population of India will catch up with that of China in 2024. China’s total population will reach a peak of 1.44 billion in 2028 and decrease to 1.36 billion in 2050, ranking second in the world, according to the UN document.

The consistently huge size is the key to understanding China’s demographic problems and advancing long-term balanced population development.

Moreover, the population has been aging rapidly and on a massive scale. Data from the General Report of Strategic Research for Dealing with Population Aging released by the National Working Commission on Aging reveals that the number of seniors and the rate of aging will both double by the mid-21st century. The population aged 60 years and above will increase from 249 million by the end of 2018 to a record high of 487 million in 2053. Accordingly the rate of aging will rise from 17.3 percent to 34.9 percent, bringing China among the ranks of seriously aging countries in the world.

Also, attention needs to be paid to gender imbalance. More than 30 years of a higher ratio of male births suggests that China will face the problem of gender imbalance for a long period to come.
In addition, family changes have been dramatic. On a micro level, families are becoming smaller, simpler and more nuclear yet more complicated at the same time, with weakening functions and increasingly high dependency on society.

The relationships between the population and the economy, society and resources are decisive in demographic development. Building a moderately prosperous society and then realizing basic modernization within 15 years, and furthermore becoming a modernized power within another 15 years, hints at the improving life quality of the people and the growing demands for the consumption of resources per capita.

Due to the rigid restrictions of the environment, China’s resources per capita mirror the conflict between population and limited resources. For example, the fresh water resources per capita are less than one third of the world average, the arable land per capita is less than half, and the area of forest per capita accounts for only one fifth. Forty-five mineral resources indispensable to industrialization are per capita less than half of the world average, and proven recoverable reserves of oil and gas per capita are just one fifteenth. The constraints of natural resources are an important factor hindering sustainable socioeconomic development.

Over the past half century, China’s demographic policy has centered on controlling the population size to alleviate the tension between socioeconomic development and resources. As a result, the growth of the population has been effectively controlled to some degree, but the total population will always stand at 1.3 billion and above until the mid-21st century. Long-term balanced population development will face severe resource challenges.


Window of opportunity remains
Since reform and opening up, China’s GDP has continued to grow at a high rate of 9.5 percent annually on average for four decades, a world economic miracle. In the process, demographic transitions have provided new impetuses for economic growth, and population dividends have contributed a great deal to development.

According to the Statistical Communiqué of the 2018 National Economics and Social Development, the GDP of China amounted to 90.03 trillion yuan at the end of 2018, entrenching the status of the country as the second largest economy in the world. The GDP per capita stood at 64,644 yuan, hitting a record high. Though the GDP China created accounted for approximately one sixth of the world’s total, its GDP per capita remained lower than the global average.

The high economic growth is most directly reflected in the substantial rise of the incomes of urban and rural residents. In 2018, the disposable incomes of urban and rural residents reached 39,651 yuan and 14,617 yuan, respectively.

Over the past 40 years since reform and opening up, China has gone through the stages of shaking off poverty, comprehensively solving the problem of food and clothing, creating a basic well-off society, and entering a moderately prosperous society in all aspects.

Based on the laws of demographic transition, as the labor force ages and the trends of an aging society deepen, the population advantage will shift from predominance in human resources to a comprehensive edge in human capital accumulation. Human resources will be decreasing yet still abundant, and as such the window of opportunity will remain open to China’s population in the future.


Population qualities improved
Under the current circumstances of population size and structure, improving the overall qualities of the population is crucial to weakening the negative effects of imbalanced demographic growth and core to promoting the long-term balanced development of the population.

Since reform and opening up, the task of improving the quality of the population raised in the basic state policy has been fulfilled. First, health conditions have improved significantly. Data from the 2017 Statistical Communique on the Development of Medical and Health Work in China shows that the life expectancy averaged 76.7 years in 2017; the infant mortality rate, the mortality rate of children under five, and the maternal mortality rate declined to 6.8/1,000, 9.1/1,000, and 19.6/100,000, respectively, better than the averages of middle and high income countries in the world.
The second evident improvement lies in the level of education. As of 2015, the highly educated population reached 171 million, ranking first in the world and accounting for 12.4 percent of the total population. The population of six years old and above had an average of 9.08 years of schooling; the incoming labor force received 13.3 years of education on average, equivalent to freshmen in university. The number of graduates from junior colleges, universities and graduate schools totals 8 million every year.

Human capital is the engine of development and an active element in promoting national prosperity and progress. Improving the quality of the population can make up the demand for labor force and boost labor productivity.

Holistic view essential
For long-term balanced population development, it is first of all vital to handle well the core issue of the sustainable development of the population, economy, society and resources. Moderate population size and growth is the only path to this end.

Second, in the face of large population size and severe structural aging, particularly the pressure of the population on socioeconomic growth and the tension between the population and resources, long-term attention should be paid to moderating the population size and structure within a century, even within two centuries or a longer span of time. In the near future, efforts should be made to actively cope with current demographic problems or problems foreseeable in the next few decades.

Improvement of the population quality is an endless endeavor. A high-quality population is an indispensable, fundamental and strategic resource for long-term balanced demographic development and a source of power for high-quality economic growth.

In addition, the structural imbalance of the population is temporary. It is not simply a demographic issue. The government should be grounded upon basic demographic realities and its population foundation when formulating strategies for economic development. Development is the only option to solve structural demographic problems.


Yuan Xin is a professor from the School of Economics at Nankai University.

edited by CHEN MIRONG