Demographic Challenges for a Rising China
Deborah S. Davis
DEBORAH S. DAVIS is Professor of Sociology at Yale University.
Her publications include Creating
Wealth and Poverty in Postsocialist
China (edited with Wang Feng, 2009), The Consumer Revolution in
Urban China (2000), and Chinese
Families in the Post-Mao Era (edited with Stevan Harrell, 1993). For a complete list of publications, see http://sociology.yale.edu/people/ deborah-davis.
For more than a millennium, Asia has been the demographic center of the world, and since 1500
China has been the global demographic giant (see
Figure 1).1 Sometime in the next ½fteen years India will again overtake China as the largest nation, but demographic challenges within China will shape both China’s future and that of the world.2 In part,
China’s continuing global influence flows from its sheer size, but as I will discuss, underlying demographic dynamics in fertility, urbanization, and family formation have created demographic challenges for which there are no easy answers. Prolonged sub-replacement fertility in particular has created irreversible conditions for rapid aging of the population, and massive migration to cities has left many villages populated by frail elders without adult children to support them. Promulgation of no-fault divorce legislation and a liberalized sexual climate, in the context of this rapid aging of the © 2014 by Deborah S. Davis doi:10.1162/DAED_a_00270
Abstract: Looking into the near future, China faces immense demographic challenges. Prolonged subreplacement fertility has created irreversible conditions for rapid aging of the population, and massive migration to cities has left many villages populated by elderly farmers with no adult children to support them. Soaring divorce rates and high levels of residential dislocation have eroded family stability. To a large extent, government policies created to accelerate economic growth inadvertently fostered these demographic challenges, and now the country is facing the negative consequences of interventions that previously spurred double-digit growth. Legacies of Confucian familism initially blunted pressures on families. Filial sons and daughters sent back remittances, parents cared for migrants’ children and invested in their children’s marriages, and families with four grandparents, two parents, and one child (4+2+1) pooled resources to continuously improve a family’s material well-being. But now the demographic challenges have further intensi½ed and the question arises: can the state adopt new policies that will allow the prototypical 4+2+1 families created by the one-child policy to thrive through 2030? 27143 (2) Spring 2014 population and high levels of residential dislocation, have further eroded the stability of family life. Government policies created to jump-start the economy initially al lowed China to reap a demographic dividend. As birth rates plummeted, the ratio of workers to non-workers rose, and savings from child-rearing at both household and community levels spurred investment in education, health, and infrastructure.
But after twenty years, the dividend has run out, and China is facing the negative consequences of policies that previously spurred thirty years of double-digit growth.
Legacies of Confucian familism initially blunted the pressure on families. Filial sons and daughters sent back remittances, parents cared for migrants’ children and invested in their children’s marriages, and urban families with four grandparents, two parents, and one child (4+2+1) pooled resources to continuously improve material well-being; but now the demographic challenges have intensi½ed and the question thus arises: can the state adopt new policies that will allow the emerging proto typical 4+2+1 families created by the onechild policy to thrive through 2030?
When China is compared to other na tions, attention immediately focuses on its unique one-child policy. Nowhere else in the world has a central government so systematically imposed such a draconian limit on women’s childbearing. One outcome is sub-replacement fertility; a second is a rapid and accelerating aging of the population. In 1980, less than 6 percent of the Chinese population was 65 or older.
Like India and Vietnam, China was a country dominated by the young. However, should birth rates continue at their
World Population, 1000–2000
Source: Based on data from Home Maddison, http://www.ggdc.net/maddison/Maddison.htm. 0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 1000 1500 1600 1900 2000 pe rc en t % Asia % China % India
Davis 28 Dædalus, the Journal of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences current sub-replacement level over the next twenty years (as they are predicted to do), by 2030 China will have a slightly higher percentage of elderly than the
United States or Russia. By contrast, In dia’s elderly population will have risen to only 8 percent and Vietnam’s to 12 percent (see Figure 2).
China’s rapid drop in birth rates did not originate with the one-child policy launched in 1980. Rather, birth rates ½rst plunged in the prior decade as a result of a nationwide drive to delay marriage and space births.3 The rapid decline in birth rates between 1970 and 1979, however, does not mean that the one-child policy has had no signi½cant impact. On the contrary, by enforcing a one-child limit throughout urban China as well as in prosperous peri-urban villages, the policy enforced sub-replacement fertility rates previously found only in wealthy countries with a high percentage of college-educated wo men. Moreover, if such low birth rates persist in China at the same time as more women enter college, life expectancy increases, and out-migration continues to exceed in-migration, then China’s population will age as quickly as did that of Ger many, Italy, and Japan. However, in contrast to these countries, China will become old before it becomes rich. In addition, because China lacks the national pension and medical insurance programs provided in these wealthy nations, the next generation of Chinese elderly will face extensive hardships for which there are no easy so lutions.