Aging Population May Yet Halt China's Rise

  • By Kang Kyung-hee from the Chosun Ilbo's News Desk

    January 25, 2010 12:22

    Kang Kyung-hee

    An interesting article on the BBC website described a Chinese kindergarten class with a boy-to-girl ratio of 4:1. China's gender imbalance is becoming a serious problem; in one small village all of the single women have left in search of work, leaving only aging bachelors behind. A study says that by 2020, nearly 30 million Chinese bachelors will have trouble finding a mate.

    China has flourished during the global economic crisis, surpassing Germany last year to become the world's biggest exporter. According to one analysis, China has edged past Japan and is now the world's no. 2 economy. Another report says that by 2017 it will have overtaken the U.S. to become the biggest economy in the world.

    With the world's economic powerhouses slowed by the financial crisis, China will become the locomotive of the global economy. But can its formidable growth continue unimpeded? The BBC report provides an interesting peek into the country's future.

    There are numerous challenges to the Chinese economy, population being the most critical. According to Chinese economist Tian Xueyuan, the population of 1.3 billion, which accounts for more than 20 percent of the world's, represents both the country’s biggest hope and its biggest challenge.

    In more difficult economic times, a large population was a burden. The Chinese government introduced its one-child policy in the late 1970s as a way to stem population growth, and the birthrate decreased. Given the cultural bias in favor of sons over daughters, this also resulted in an extreme gender imbalance. The lower birthrate, now that these babies are reaching an age at which they are economically active, has created a population bonus that is contributing to the country’s economic growth. By 2017, as its economy catches up with that of the U.S., its economically active population is expected to peak at 990 million.

    As its per capita GDP reaches $3,000, however, China faces a rapidly aging population. According to the Chinese government, there will be 200 million Chinese aged over 65 by 2027 and 300 million by 2036. The Center for Strategic and International Studies says the number of elderly Chinese will reach 400 million by 2040, with 100 million over the age of 80. It warns of a situation where one child must support two parents and four grandparents. With the number of elderly needing support continuing to rise and the economic population continuing to decline, the economy will enter a stage where growth slows, as it did in Japan.

    In the late 1980s, the U.S. worried about Japan catching up. But the Japanese economy entered a period of stagnation after the bubble burst in the 1990s and its economically active population began declining. Renowned American economist Todd Buchholz said that Japan is aging "faster than sushi in the sun" and described its economy as a doughnut with a large hole at the center.

    According to experts, the likely ramifications of the aging population are beyond imagination. Demographer Paul Wallace refers to an "agequake," saying that it will cause a seismic shift in the global economy. Thus some experts in the West say it is overly optimistic to believe that China, with its aging population and much less time than developed nations to prepare for it, will have had its time in Asia and the world by 2020 and 2030. The same warning goes for Korea as well. Preparations have been too few, and the agequake is coming too soon.

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