China’s Decline Became Undeniable This Week. Now What?

Jan. 17, 2023


Bret Stephens

By Bret Stephens

Opinion Columnist

“For years, I’ve been writing columns predicting China’s decline. This week, the decline became undeniable. The road downhill will not be smooth — not for it or for us.

The news is that the death rate in China outnumbered the birthrate for the first time in more than 60 years. Last time, it was famine caused by Mao Zedong’s economic policies that led to an estimated 36 million deaths from starvation. Now, it’s young Chinese couples who, like their peers in much of the developed world, don’t want children.

So far, the demographic downshift has been small — 9.56 million births last year against 10.41 million deaths, according to Chinese government statistics. That’s out of a total population of 1.4 billion. The country will not be running out of people anytime soon.

But the longer trend lines look awful for Beijing. In 1978, when Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms got underway, China’s median age was 20.1 years. In 2021, it was 37.9, exceeding that of the United States. China’s fertility rate is 1.18. The replacement rate necessary to maintain a stable population is 2.1. As of 2018, there were an estimated 34 million more males in China than females — the result of a one-child policy that led couples to abort girls at a higher rate than boys. China’s working-age population has been shrinking for years; a government spokesman estimated that it will fall to 700 million by the middle of the century.”