Demographic Trends in China: Implications for Domestic and Foreign Policies

In the 21st century, China is going to become one of the most important states in the international system. With a population of over 1 billion people, it represents nearly 20% of the global population and this fact alone will combine with the country’s increasing economic might to give much weight to Beijing’s domestic and international policies in this century. There are significant challenges, however, that are associated with having a population as high as China’s. The first one is that in the 21st century, China is facing a process of population aging as a consequence of the one-child policy implemented since the 1970s in an effort to curb high population growth. The social costs are going to increase and be expressed in health care and social services expenditures, retirement incomes, and a lower ration of retired people to workers, who can support the costlier social security system. Further, the shift of the focus to the demographic problems China will face in this century will take away attention and resources from other policy areas, such as military spending and foreign policy, with the irony being that the availability of the amounts of right people for the many tasks at hand in a growing economy is central to everything the government in Beijing is going to do in the 21st century. A limited comparative perspective on the consequences of an aging and declining population comes from a survey of Eastern European states in the aftermath of the post-socialist transformations they experienced through the 1990s and 2000s, with massive emigration of skilled labour to the West and a collapse in birth rates across the region. From the foreign policy perspective, China may find itself challenged to meet its international obligations, commitments and aspirations when an aging population will become an exceptional domestic concern as we approach the middle of the century. These policies may include foreign troop deployments, the maintenance of international regimes and agreements and leading efforts in new policy areas, such as environmental problems, new energy sources or Space exploration; from this brief survey, it is possible to see the many implications demographic trends have for China’s domestic and international position.

In the 1970s, a one-child family planning policy took effect in China to curb the high rate of population growth up until that point.[1] The result has been that the birth rate dropped dramatically, but it has also introduced challenges to China that will be felt in the coming decades. On the one hand is the issue of an increasingly unbalanced sex ratio that sees men outnumbering women significantly; there is a cultural explanation in that families tend to prefer sons over daughters and in combination with the one-child policy, girls are consequently more disadvantaged.[2] Rectifying this imbalance must be done with a perspective in mind, because it will only be restored within a generational vision of demographic policy-making.

Published in Political Reflection Magazine Vol. 2 No. 4

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