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Chinese population challenges: fewer girls, more old people
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by Isabelle Attané, INED Asia

With 1.3 billion inhabitants in 2005, China is the world’s most populous country, though its share of the total world population is shrinking: 22% in 1950, compared with 20% today. Likewise, one-third of all inhabitants of the least developed countries were Chinese in 1950, compared with only one-quarter today. Demographers are even predicting that the population of China will be overtaken by that of India within the next 25 to 30 years. To understand the reasons for this relative decline, we need to look at the demographic history of China over the last fifty years.


From the threat of growth… to the problem of ageing
The “Population and Birth Control Act” adopted at the end of 2002 reasserts the principle of one child per couple. But with the social liberalization resulting from the Chinese economic reforms, it is now increasingly difficult for the authorities to interfere in the private lives of couples. Moreover, the threat of unmanageable population growth is now a thing of the past. Though coercion is still the rule, certain regions are now developing an approach based on voluntary birth control. Emphasis is now placed on health, reproductive health in particular, as well as on education and information.

Moreover, the Chinese government is now starting to worry about the problem of population ageing, which will occur very quickly due to the rapid decline in fertility and mortality. Apart from a small fraction of the urban population who work for state-owned enterprises, old people in China do not receive a pension. Most of the elderly rely on support from the family, if they are lucky, or must carry on working to maintain their income. But with the increasing cost of living and the rise of individualism in the wake of socioeconomic change, family solidarity is weakening. Family composition has also changed, making solidarity more difficult. The smaller family size and the lengthening of life expectancy mean that when two people marry, each of them an only child, they must support their four parents and sometimes several surviving grandparents as well. A share of the burden placed on families should be transferred to the community via a pension system accessible to all.

According to the latest UN projections, the Chinese population may never reach 1.5 billion, but will level off at 1.45 billion in 2030 before starting to decline. By then, it will have been caught up by India, which may have 200 million more inhabitants than China in 2050. Though these projections clearly confirm the end of the “population explosion” in China, they also highlight the threat of rapid population ageing in the coming years. As we have already seen, the proportion of over-65s is set to double in the next 25 years, rising from 8% in 2005 to 16% in 2030. In France, this transition took place over a whole century. From 2035, the Chinese population will have reached the level of population ageing now affecting Japan, the country in the world where this trend is most far advanced. In thirty years time, 27% of China’s population will be aged 60 and over (26% in Japan in 2005) and the median age will be 43, like Japan in 2005. The under-15s will represent only 16% of the population (14% in Japan today).

Future trends in the numerical imbalance between boys and girls are more difficult to predict. It is to be hoped that mentalities will evolve towards greater equality between the sexes. In 2001, the Chinese authorities launched a campaign entitled “More consideration for girls” to promote gender equality and improve the living conditions of families with just one girl child, in rural areas especially. The aim is to return the sex ratio to normal levels by 2010. Experience in Korea shows that this objective is attainable. In South Korea, the sex ratio at birth increased in the 1980s, as it did in China, reaching 115 boys for 100 girls in the early 1990s. But since the mid 1990s, it has fallen back to around 110 boys for 100 girls. Efforts by the Korean government to promote the status of women appear to be bearing fruit, and China could draw on the experience of its neighbour to promote greater gender equality.

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