Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

China’s population decline threatens US … seriously?

  • Demography is not destiny, so it’s meaningless to use population decline as a predictor of China’s future unless you can link it to productivity, which depends greatly on technological progress, something that is inherently impossible to forecast

Reading the American commentariat about China can be highly instructive – about the state of their own society; about China, not so much.

Everyone agrees China is going into a population decline. But they can’t agree where that is taking the country. For Chinese such as yours truly, we may fret about inadequate care services for the elderly, preparing for a greying society, long-term economic implications such as the need to boost productivity via technology and such like.

In the United States, though, commentators worry about whether that means China will become more or less dangerous. That wasn’t a question that would naturally come to mind – well, my mind anyway. But they can’t seem to agree on that either.

Renowned historian Niall Ferguson thinks population decline will spell the end of “the Chinese century”. America, don’t sweat it! However, George Will, the influential conservative commentator of the The Washington Post, warns the problem will make China even more dangerous.

“As China becomes increasingly fixated on its demographic destiny, it, too, might become more dangerous,” he wrote. “If intractable population trends indicate that China is at its geopolitical apogee, it might attempt to leap at Taiwan through a closing window of opportunity.”

How new measures in China are trying to reverse declining birth rate

There are no doubt considerations that could lead Beijing to contemplate the use of force to unify with Taiwan; population decline will probably not factor very high up on that list. Will’s column belongs to a subgenre of American commentary on China: any problem the country is currently facing will make it more nationalistic at home and aggressive aboard. Property market collapse, slow growth, inflation, deflation, high youth unemployment, Covid-19 outbreaks … In America, you can always produce a column claiming any one of those domestic problems will cause mainland China to invade Taiwan, challenge America and/or make trouble in the Asia-Pacific.

Meanwhile, Ferguson doesn’t think China will be a credible threat to America. “If you think we’ve got problems, I can assure you that those of America’s principal rival are worse. Much worse,” he wrote in Bloomberg. “And, unlike our problems, China’s do not have the solution that obviously exists for the US – namely immigration reform of the sort that has already been achieved elsewhere in the Anglosphere.”

It’s meaningless to use population decline as a sole predictor – social scientists call it “mono-causal” – unless you can link it to productivity, which depends on technological progress, something that is impossible to predict.