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For the first time in over 60 years, China's population fell by almost a million

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

China's population is officially shrinking. After years of the population declining, last year, for the first time, hundreds of thousands more people died than were born. To talk about the implications of this for China and the rest of the world, we're joined by Stuart Gietel-Basten. He's a professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Khalifa University in Dubai, where he is now. Thanks for joining us.

STUART GIETEL-BASTEN: Thank you very much.

FADEL: So let's start with why. Why is China's population shrinking?

GIETEL-BASTEN: So this is primarily a structural change of low fertility, which has been in place now for 40 - more than 40 years. And, of course, what happens over time is when you have prolonged low fertility rates, that means you have fewer women, fewer girls being born who then grow up to become - you have smaller number of women of childbearing age. So then even when they're - even if the fertility rates stay the same, you end up with a lower number of births.

FADEL: Yeah.

GIETEL-BASTEN: And then, of course, in recent years, COVID has really exacerbated this, as it has in countries all over the world because of the kind of economic insecurity, the impact on jobs but then also the challenges of working from home and having a family under these challenging circumstances, which have been particularly difficult in China. So it's really exacerbated and exaggerated this shift in fertility.

FADEL: But what does this mean now for the economy, for the labor force? China is an economic powerhouse now. It's emerged as the second-largest economy in the last few decades. What does this mean if there's less people to work?

GIETEL-BASTEN: I would say that it's a challenge rather than a crisis in a sense. It's going to require new ways of thinking about this kind of demographic - the new demographic paradigm - right? - that the era of rapid growth, the double-digit growth, of cheap labor, of a younger labor force - you know, that era is now really at a close. I think that's what today really shows us. And so what China is going to need to do is to respond to this. And in fairness, it has been doing this for some time. You know, this is not a big surprise to the Chinese government. It has pivoted towards responding to an aging population through increasing investment in health and in poverty to ensure that people age well, developing social work systems of planning to change their pension system and so on and then also have to increase productivity.

Now, that's much easier said than done, of course, but there's really still a lot of levers that can be pulled in China. And I suppose - and the last thing is that China's political system is very different to, you know, the American political system and the British political system in that it can make it easier to make these kind of long-term structural plans and structural changes over the next five, 10 20, 30 years to adapt to this new situation.

FADEL: How will this impact China's economic growth, though?

GIETEL-BASTEN: Well, it's impossible to say. I mean, I think that, as I say, it's - it will depend entirely on how the government implements the current five-year plan and then what the next five-year plan looks like. It is harder, without a doubt, to generate the kind of economic growth that it has seen under the current demographic circumstances and the projected demographic circumstances. Is that inevitable that that means that economic growth will flatline? No, it is not. Is it going to be difficult to readapt, to change, to adapt the economy to try to make the best of this - right? - to try to do more with less, if you will? Well, yes, it is possible.

FADEL: Stuart Gietel-Basten is a professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Khalifa University in Dubai, where we reached him. Thank you so much for your time.

GIETEL-BASTEN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.