Demographic Ageing and structural Imbalances in China

1. Introduction

In recent years, especially as a result of the growing weight of China in the international economic scenario, the alarms concerning the alleged Chinese invasion of the West are multiplying: this fear is fomented, in particular, by the population consistency of the country, which has already passed 1,300 million inhabitants (in 2005) making it currently the most populated country in the world.
The fear of a Chinese conquest is strong, so much so that the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington has even called the Chinese emigration a ‘tsunami on the horizon’. In reality this fear seems to be unsupported by statistical data1: China represented 22% of the total world population in 1950, while today its share has decreased to 20%. Moreover considering the demographic weight of China, the 34 million Chinese (old and new generation) scattered around the world constitute a very insignificant figure. Furthermore China’s growth has been slowing considerably in recent years, so much so that in 25-30 years the other world demographic giant, India, will surpass it in terms of size. Moreover the country of the Dragon is now facing its own demographic problems, especially the process of demographic ageing (caused by the low birth rate and the increase in life expectancy) and the imbalances that characterize its structure (for example, the disproportions by sex). Both these problems are, as will be discussed further, direct consequences of the policies of birth control, the so called ‘one child policy’, started in 1981.
In the present contribution the main demographic characteristics of China will be presented2, as will the figures concerning the ongoing demographic ageing process and the imbalances in the population structure generated by the national policies of birth control. Using data from the United Nations, the population projections under different scenarios will be analysed in order to appreciate what the future of China might possibly be if the current tendencies in mortality and fertility remain steady. Although with some differences, all the scenarios show that China will soon face levels of population ageing (expressed, for instance, as a share of old people out of the total population) higher than the current levels of European countries. Also the ‘one birth policy’ has caused a significant lack of females, because of the selection put into effect in favour of males, and this fact will strongly affect the ‘marriage market’, causing noteworthy social problems for the country.

2. Main Demographic Characteristics of China

In 1950 China counted slightly more than 554 million inhabitants; thirty five years later, in 1985, it had already passed a billion, and today it has over one billion, 300 million inhabitants. As a result of this growth, China has today a population density of 137 inhabitants per square km, a value higher than those of western countries (for example, it is 32 inhabitant per square km in the USA and 114 in the European Union), but low if compared with other eastern countries (for instance, India has a population density of 336 inhabitants per square km, while Japan has 344). The median age of the population rose from a value of 23.9 years in 1950 to a value of 32.6 years3.

Table 1: Some demographic structure indicators for China (1950-2005)

(click to enlarge)
Source: United Nations, 2006. * percentage calculated only on the women’s group; all the other percentages are calculated on the total population.

The population sex ratio, which measures (per 100) the number of males for every female was at a comprehensible4 high level in 1950 (108.1%), when the population was younger than today, but even today it has an incomprehensible5 high value (105.6%), when it should be much lower according to the ongoing process of population ageing. Taking a look at the proportion of population aged 65 years and over (7.6%), and knowing that at the oldest ages females prevail, the population sex ratio should have been much lower than its current level. This disproportion, which will be examined in more detail in a later paragraph, is the result of the unnatural birth sex ratio, which strongly affects the sex ratio at higher ages and that of the total population. The increase in the proportion of the old share of the population caused, of course, a decrease in the other fractions, especially the youngest ones, as a direct consequence of the reduction of the birth rate: the percentage of the population aged 0-15 years fell from 33.6% in 1950 to 21.4% in 2005. Among these classes, the most important decrease is, obviously, that of children aged 0-4 years, where the percentage decreased over the same period from 13.7% to 6.4%.
Table 2 shows some indicators of the natural dynamic (which refers to births and deaths) of the Chinese population for five year intervals from 1950 to 2005. The population growth rate is equal to 0.65% in the period 2000-2005, while it was at 1.87% fifty years earlier. The crude birth rate fell from the value of 43.8‰ in the period 1950-1955 to a value of 13.6‰ today. In the historical series of data a slight recovery can be noticed in the birth rate in the period 1985-1990, during which it reached a value of 22.1‰, while it was 20.4‰ in the previous five years, after which it started to fall again, reaching the value of 18.3‰ the following five years. Also the crude death rate strongly decreased, from the value of 25.1‰ of the mid twentieth century to the current value of 6.8‰. The reduction of the death rate is the result of improved living conditions and the progress in medicine and health care. Despite the strong reduction in the crude death rate, China still shows a very high infant mortality rate6, which is equal to 34.7‰ in the period 2000-2005 (it was even at 195‰ in 1950-1955). This aspect of mortality is very important, since the infant mortality rate can be considered a proper indicator of the ‘real’ level of social and economic development of a country7.

Table 2: Some natural dynamic indicators for China (1950 – 2005)
(click to enlarge)
Source: United Nations, 2006.

The simultaneous observation of the evolution of crude birth and death rates allowed us to show the last two phases of the Chinese Demographic Transition, as shown in figure 1. The model of Demographic Transition is a theory used to explicate the long-term growth of a population. It is typically constituted by three phases, the first and the last where the birth and the death crude rates have similar values (high in the first phase and low in the third), and a second phase, which is the real transitional one, in which the distance between the two indicators is higher (with the birth rate at higher levels than the death rate), so the population grows. So the higher the distance between the negative and the positive natural indicator, the higher is the population growth rate: in fact, it is possible to notice that China showed the highest levels of percentage population growth rate in the periods 1965-1970 and 1970-1975 (when it was, respectively, equal to 2.61% and 2.21%), which are exactly the periods, as can be seen in the graph, where the two lines are the furthest apart. The end of the Demographic Transition can be individualised in correspondence to that time when the crude birth rate and the crude death rate have similar values at a low level. It is possible therefore, to affirm that China will conclude its transition around 2020. It is necessary to underline that the forecasts of the United Nations for years after 2005 are based on a constant fertility scenario, which assumes that the level of fertility will not go lower or higher than the current value. Variations in the level of fertility could lead, of course, to a shift in the date of conclusion of the transitional process.

Figure 1: Last phases of the Demographic Transition in China (1950-2050)
Source: own elaborations on United Nations, 2006. * Forecast based on constant-fertility scenario.

As a result of the reduction in the crude death rate, the life expectancy rose from a value of 40.8 years in the period 1950-1955 for both sexes (39.3 for males and 42.3 for females) to a value 71.5 years in the period 2000-2005 (69.8 for males and 73.3 for females). So the life expectancy had a significant rise, but it’s still lower than the values reached by the western countries, where it is around 80 years (in Europe, in 2006 it was equal to 75.4 years for men and 81.5 for women). The increase in life expectancy is one of the two causes of the demographic ageing process (so called ‘ageing from above’), the other is the fertility reduction (‘ageing from below’), which has been extremely considerable in the last fifty years in China: the Total Fertility Rate (TFR), which expresses the number of children for each mother in fertile age (15-49 years) fell from a value of 6.22 to a value of 1.70, not very far from the value of western countries (the average value for UE27 in 2005 was 1.5 children per woman). What is interesting to evaluate is the value of the Net Reproduction Rate (per woman), since it expresses the number of daughters for each mother, and so gives a measure of the reproductive replacement: already in the 90s the Chinese value fell below 1.

Manuela Stranges: Ph. D. in Demography, Department of Economics and Statistics, University of Calabria,
1 For Italy but also for some general data and figures concerning the whole of Europe, see, for example, the section dedicated to China in the Italian Caritas Immigration Dossier 2006, where the statistical data seem to show that the fear of the ‘yellow invasion’ of the West appears unfounded.
2 A reflection on the consequences of the demographic ageing processes in China can be read in Jackson R. and Howe N. (2006a and 2006b).
3 To make a comparison with a western country and have an idea of the differences between China and the more developed countries of the world, it could be useful to know that, for instance, the median age of the Italian population is currently of 42.3 years.
4 Since males are prevalent in younger ages because the sex ratio at birth is typically 105-106 males for 100 females (but it will be noticed that the Chinese one is far from typical), while females are prevalent in the oldest ages because of their greater longevity, for those populations which are still young the value of the total sex ratio is understandably higher than 100, because the population is more concentrated in the youngest age classes, where males prevail. On the other hand, those populations which are older have a value lower than 100, since the population is more concentrated in the oldest age classes.
5 China doesn’t have a very significant level of ageing today, but still this value of total sex ratio seems to be too high. For instance, in Italy, the population sex ratio was equal to 100.4% in 1861 (the date at which the country was unified), because it was pretty young, while by 1921 it had already reached a value below 100 (exactly at 98.8%) as the ageing process had not even begun yet. At that time the proportion of people aged 65 and over out of the total population was around 7%, even lower than the Chinese proportion of today (7.6%). So the comparison between the two countries shows an evident incongruence.
6 For instance, in Italy it is around 4‰ in 2005. The average values are of 6 deaths every 1,000 live births in the industrialized countries; 27‰ for Latin America and Caribbean countries and for Eastern Europe and countries of the former USSR; 29‰ for East Asia and Pacific countries; 46‰ for Middle East and North Africa countries; 83‰ for South Asia; 131‰ for Southern and Eastern Africa; 160‰ for Sub-Saharan Africa; and 186‰ for Central and West Africa. The world average is 72 deaths every 1,000 live births. So China has a value lower than the world average (which is, indeed, very high), but still very far from the value reached by the industrialized countries.
7 This shows again, if it is necessary, that economic development does not always completely correspond to what is called “human development”. Starting from the 50s, many economists, believing in the absolute association between economic growth and development, began to talk of the so called “trickle down mechanism”, according to which the growth of Gross Domestic Product (GDP and GDP per capita) would be automatically and certainly translated into a growth (at the level of the whole population) in terms of development, more employment, better living standards and reduction of inequality and poverty. So, because of this belief, the GDP began to be the only worry for economists and governments. Later, especially because the statistical data proved this theory to be wrong, attention moved to other indicators, such as “[…] availability of drinking water, sanitation, transport, health care, education, as well as a commitment adequately remunerated for anyone who wants to work […]”(ILO, 1976a; see also, ILO 1976b). In the mid-80s Paul Streeten (e.g. 1981; Streeten et al., 1981) and Francis Stewart (e.g. 1985), both development economists, resumed and revised the theory of “basic needs”, starting from the premise that development is not only the achievement of a minimum threshold of income but the achievement of a state of “full life”, subverting the classical version of the direct relationship between growth and development, arguing that the satisfaction of needs is the basic element for growth. The basic needs, which are considered a prerequisite for a decent life, are usually identified as six: adequate nutrition, primary education, health, hygiene, the availability of drinking water, the availability of a dwelling with infrastructure associated with it.

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