The Problem(s) With China’s Population Drop

Jan. 17, 2023

A group of seniors serve themselves at a cafeteria in Fujian province, China.
Credit…Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Paul Krugman

By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

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“China’s population declined last year, for the first time since the mass deaths associated with Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward in the 1960s. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that China has announced that its population declined. Many observers are skeptical about Chinese data; I’ve been at conferences when China released, say, new data on economic growth, and many people responded by asking not “Why was growth 7.3 percent?” but rather “Why did the Chinese government decide to say that it was 7.3 percent?”

In any case, it’s clear that China’s population is or soon will be at a peak; the best bet is probably that population has been falling for several years. But why consider this a problem? After all, in the 1960s and 1970s, many people worried that the world was facing a crisis of overpopulation, with China one of the biggest sources of that pressure. And the Chinese government itself tried to limit population growth with its famous one-child policy.

So why isn’t population decline good news, an indication that China and the world in general will have fewer people placing demands on the resources of a finite planet?

The answer is that a declining population creates two major problems for economic management. These problems aren’t insoluble, given intellectual clarity and political will. But will China rise to the challenge? That’s far from clear.”