George Will: China’s precarious future
Demography does not dictate any nation’s destiny, but it shapes every nation’s trajectory, so attention must be paid to Nicholas Eberstadt. He knows things that should occasion some American worries, but also knows more important things that should assuage some worries regarding Russia and China.
Writing in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, Eberstadt, of the American Enterprise Institute, warns of “negative demographic trends now eating away at the foundations of U.S. power.” America is the third most populous nation. From 1950 to 2015, it acquired almost 50 million immigrants — “nearly half the developed world’s net immigration.” Between the mid-1980s and the 2008 financial crisis, America was “the only rich country with replacement level fertility” (2.1 children per woman).
So, by 2040, when the U.S. population is around 380 million, its population will be younger than that of almost any other rich democracy, and the working-age population will still be expanding.
After the 2008 financial crisis, the fertility rate fell and, Eberstadt says, “shows no sign of recovering.” Furthermore, the employment rate for men ages 25-54 is comparable to its level in 1939 — during the Depression. And America’s “traditional allies face even more daunting demographic challenges,” with the European Union and Japan having had sub- replacement fertility rates since the 1970s.
America can seek new friends and allies: By 2040, the populations of Indonesia and the Philippines could be 300 million and 140 million (by then larger than Russia’s), respectively. Russia’s and China’s problems are more intractable.
Vladimir Putin is a strongman ruling a shriveling country. Regarding population and human capital, Russia seems to be, Eberstadt says, in “all but irremediable decline.”
Much more important is what Eberstadt calls China’s “collapse in fertility.” Although China’s working-age population (there, 15-64) almost doubled between 1975 and 2010, fertility has been below the replacement level for at least 25 years. China’s population will shrink after 2027; its working-age population has been shrinking for five years and will be at least 100 million smaller by 2040, when the adult population “will have fewer average years of schooling than that of Bolivia and Zimbabwe.” The number of elderly will have increased from 135 million to 325 million in 25 years, with the nation’s median age having gone from less than 25 in 1990 to 48.
Furthermore, there will be “tens of millions of surplus men” in China because during the “one-child” policy (1979-2015), many parents chose abortion rather than the birth of a girl.
Nothing is more certain than that China’s Leninist state will continue the corrupt or otherwise inefficient allocation of resources, making robust economic growth even more elusive than it already is.
The actions of supine U.S. corporations — most conspicuously the NBA, but scores more — reflect a mistaken extrapolation. It is the projection that China’s four decades of economic ascent will continue unabated, making that nation an irresistible force. Corporate groveling might abate when CEOs understand China’s overrated present and precarious future. They should consider that less invertebrate corporate behavior might bend China toward decency, and certainly would protect corporations from Americans’ rising disgust with corporate indecency.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and can be reached via email.