Demographic Ageing and structural Imbalances in China

4. What About the Future?

China, as I have said, is still a young country, but also with regard to this aspect the effects of family policies will soon start to be felt. The percentage of over 65 years is today in China equal to 7.7%, a low value but, because of the conclusion of the transitional process, it will tend to grow a great deal in the future: as can be seen in figure 3, the latest United Nations21 estimates on the future growth of China forecast for 2050 a percentage of people aged 65 and over of between 20.30% (high variant) and 27.8% (low variant), values even higher than those currently recorded in Western countries, which are today strongly interested in the process of population ageing22. Indeed, as shown in the previous pages, China, due to a very restrictive policy regarding family planning (known as one-child policy) is ageing very quickly and therefore will soon have to face the structural imbalances that are already facing many more developed Western countries.
Figure 4 shows the evolution of the dependency ratios23 from 1950 to 2050: while the total dependency ratio and that of the child showed a first increasing phase until 1965 and then started to decline constantly until 2005, the elderly component of the ratio showed, instead, a steady level until 1990 and then an acceleration up to 2005. The projections of the dependency ratios estimated by the United Nations illustrate how the child dependency ratio will remain almost stable at low values, around changeable values comprised of those within the 33% of the high variant (which is understandable, since this scenario foresees an increase in fertility, so a higher share of children within the total population) and the 17% of the low variant (also logical, since it foresees the opposite of the high fertility scenario). Anyway the child component shouldn’t increase in the future. This is not the case for the old dependency ratio: all the scenarios predict a very important rise in the ratio, from the value of 11% recorded in 2005, to values comprised within the 45% of the low variant scenario and the 34% of the high variant scenario. Obviously, the value of the total dependency ratio will be pulled up by the value of the old component.

Figure 3: Demographic forecasts of the percentage of population aged 65 and more under four different scenarios
Source: own elaborations on United Nations, 2006.

Population ageing will cause serious problems for the entire social system: many old people, in fact, will not have an enlarged family which can take care of them. The patriarchal family system, which the selection of male births and the preference accorded to sons were trying to protect, will be put in danger by these same practices. As an effect of the demographic transition and of the human practices, China is rapidly becoming what Cartier (1995) called a ‘société inverse’, characterized by a 4-2-1 model (Davoli, 2006): thanks to increasing life expectancy and the decreasing of mortality, there will be 4 old people, 2 adults and just 1 child (as an effect of reduced fertility). So the China family system is moving towards a model of ‘famille souche’, the family strain, in which new generations are added to the old, and towards a model of ‘feedback family’, in which old people are housed in the family of their children. Referring to the 4-2-1 model, the whole burden of care of older people will be on this last one component, in a society which is not yet provided with a social and welfare system.
Now that the Chinese ageing process is going strongly, and China is achieving its mature demographic stage, and now that the policy of births control is loosening and melting with the general trend of decline in population growth typical of the imperialist powers (Davoli, 2006), China will have to face social problems arising from demographic issues. Its ageing process is faster than those of the other Asian countries, since the demography was strongly ‘helped’ by man’s action in causing structural imbalances and disproportions. It seems very hard today to try to forecast what’s going to happen, from a demographic point of view, in China. Firstly it will be important that the policies to redress the gender gap and move towards a normal sex ratio at birth and at the following age classes be successful. But to make them effective, it will be surely necessary to work also on the social and anthropological customs of China, to ensure that women have a peer value with men within society.

Figure 4: Demographic forecasts of the dependency ratios (total, child and old age) under four different scenarios
(click to enlarge)
Source: own elaborations on United Nations, 2006.

21 United Nations (2006), World Population Prospects: the 2006 Revision Population Database. Available on line at the site:
22 For instance, in 2006 the percentage of elderly in Italy was equal to 20%.
23  The dependency ratios measure the “weight” of the unproductive groups of population (children and old people) on the productive (or potentially so) ones. It can be shared into two ratios, which measure, respectively the burden of the young component over the productive population and the load of the old component.


Attanè, I. (2006): “Le donne mancanti dell’Asia. Verso il celibato forzato”, Le Monde Diplomatique, n°7, anno XIII, luglio 2006 (monthly supplement at Il Manifesto, Italian newspaper, 14 July 2006).

Attanè, I. (2005): “Les défis de la Chine: moins de filles, plus de personnes âgées”, Population&Sociétés, Bulletin mensuel d’information de l’I.N.E.D. (Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques), n°416, octobre 2005, p. 1-4.

Caritas (2006): Dossier Statistico Immigrazione, IDOS, Roma.

Cartier, M. (1995): “Croissance démographique et répartition de la population chinoise: 1880-1990 “, Espace, Populations, Sociétés, INED (Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques), n°2, pp. 209-217.

Davoli, P. (2006): “Le incognite della crescita cinese”, Antrocom, Vol. 2, n°1, pp. 45-48.

Golini, A. (2003): La popolazione del pianeta, Il Mulino, Bologna.

ILO (1976a): Employment, Growth and Basic Needs: A One World Problem, Report of the Director General of the International Labour Office to the Tripartite World Conference on Employment, Income Distribution and Social Progress, and the International Division of Labour. Geneva: ILO.

ILO (1976b): Meeting Basic Needs: Strategies for Eradicating Mass Poverty and Unemployment. ILO, Geneva.

Istat (2007a): Bilancio demografico nazionale. Anno 2006, Comunicato stampa del 05 luglio.

Istat (2007b): Indicatori demografici. Anno 2006, Nota informativa del 26 marzo 2007.

Jackson, R. and Howe, N. (2006a): “L’invecchiamento del Regno di Mezzo: aspetti demografici ed economici delle politiche pensionistiche in Cina”, Quaderni Europei sul Nuovo Welfare, No. 3, Istituto del Rischio, pp. 8-23, Ginevra-Trieste.

Jackson, R. and Howe, N. (2006b): “The Greying of the Middle Kingdom: The Demographics and Economics of Retirement Policy in China”, European Papers on the New Welfare, No. 4, Risk Institute, pp. 56-70, Geneve-Trieste.

Maalouf, A. (1992): The First Century After Beatrice, Abacus, London

National Bureau of Statistics of China (2006): China Population Statistics Yearbook 2006, compiled by Department of Population and Employment Statistics, China Statistics Press.

Pison, G. (2004): “Moins de naissances mais un garçon à tout prix : l’avortement sélectif des filles en Asie”, Population&Sociétés, Bulletin mensuel d’information de l’INED (Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques), n° 404, septembre 2004, p. 1-4.

Sen, A. K. (1990): “More than 100 Million Women Are Missing”, The New York Review of Books, 20 December 1990.

Stewart, F. (1985): Planning to Meet Basic Needs, Macmillan, London.

Streeten, P. (1981): Development Perspectives, MacMillan, London.

Streeten, P.P., Burki, S.J., ul Haq, M., Hicks, N. and Stewart, F. (1981): First Things First: Meeting Basic Human Needs in Developing Countries, The World Bank, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

United Nations (2006): World Population Prospects: the 2006 Revision Population Database. Available on line at the address:

Pages: 1 2 3

Tags: ,