Ross Douthat: The Chinese face a population crisis

(Ng Han Guan | AP file photo) A group of children in costume wait to perform at Beijing Capital International Airport in Beijing, Friday, Jan. 17, 2020. China's population crept past 1.4 billion in 2019 for the first time, even as the birthrate continues to fall.

In recent days both this newspaper and The Wall Street Journal have carried reports on one of the most important geopolitical facts of the 21st century: The world’s great rising power, the People’s Republic of China, is headed for a demographic crisis.

Like the United States and most developed countries, China has a birthrate that is well below replacement level. Unlike most developed countries, China is growing old without first having grown rich.

Of course China has grown richer: My colleague David Leonhardt, who spent time in China at the beginning and the end of the 2010s, just wrote a column emphasizing the “maturing” of the Chinese economy over that period, the growth of startups, and consumer spending and the middle class.

But even after years of growth, Chinese per capita gross domestic product is still about one-third or one-fourth the size of neighboring countries like South Korea and Japan. And yet its birthrate has converged with the rich world much more quickly and completely — which has two interrelated implications, both of them grim.

First, China will have to pay for the care of a vast elderly population without the resources available to richer societies facing the same challenge. Second, China’s future growth prospects will dim with every year of below-replacement birthrates because low fertility creates a self-reinforcing cycle in which a less youthful society loses dynamism and growth, which reduces economic support for would-be parents, which reduces birthrates, which reduces growth …

The Times’ report on China’s birthrates also reminds us that this trap is cultural, quoting a young Chinese woman who remarks of her one-child-policy-shaped generation, “We are all only children, and to be honest, a little selfish … How can I raise a child when I’m still a child myself?” This is the glib explication of a real problem: Having kids, inevitably one of the harder things that humans do, feels harder still in a society where children are invisible, siblings absent, and large families rare; where there aren’t ready exemplars or forms of solidarity for people contemplating parenthood.

In all this, what China is experiencing is part of the common demographic decadence of the developed world, which is enveloping developing countries too. As Lyman Stone writes in the latest National Review, the human race is increasingly facing a “global fertility crisis,” not just a European or American or Japanese baby bust. It’s a crisis that threatens ever-slower growth in the best case; in the worst case, to cite a recent paper by Stanford economist Charles Jones, it risks “an Empty Planet result: knowledge and living standards stagnate for a population that gradually vanishes.”

(An aside to answer a predictable objection: Yes, in an age of stagnation, CO2 levels won’t grow as fast, delaying some of climate change’s effects — but at the same time, a stagnant society will struggle to innovate enough to escape the climate crisis permanently. And yes, an empty planet wouldn’t have a climate change problem at all, but if that’s your goal, your misanthropy is terminal.)

Within this general, global story, though, the Chinese case is also distinctive because cruel policy choices made its demographic problems worse.

For these choices — the one-child policy and the forced abortions, sterilizations and infanticide the policy either required or encouraged — the Communist regime bears a heavy burden of guilt. And the guilt continues to build because even with the one-child policy gone, the regime’s repression still effectively suppresses birthrates. As Stone noted recently on Twitter, by targeting minority and religious populations, Beijing is attacking the country’s more fecund groups in what amounts to a statement that if Han birthrates have fallen, minority birthrates must be cut to match.

But alongside that Communist guilt, there is Western guilt as well because the one-child policy was linked to a project hatched by Western technocrats, funded by Western institutions and egged on by Western intellectuals — a classist, sexist, racist, anti-religious program that sought to defuse a “population bomb” that, we know now, would have defused itself without forced sterilization programs in India and signs in Chinese villages saying “You can beat it out! You can make it fall out! You can abort it! But you cannot give birth to it!”

That last quote comes from Mara Hvistendahl’s gripping “Unnatural Selection,” one of two books I recommend reading on the subject; the other is Matthew Connelly’s “Fatal Misconception.” Both are mostly retrospective: The Western effort died away as the population bomb fizzled, and while its Malthusianism endures around the edges of environmentalism and in European anxieties about African migration, mostly the population control crusade is recalled as a mistaken extrapolation, a well-meaning mistake.

But the news from China is a reminder that a harsher sort of memory is appropriate. As we contemplate the demographic challenge of the future, we should reserve particular opprobrium for those who chose, in the arrogance of their supposed humanitarianism, to use coercive and foul means to make the great problem of the 21st century worse.

Ross Douthat | The New York Times (CREDIT: Josh Haner/The New York Times)

Ross Douthat is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.