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Emmanuel Todd, China and the Graying of the World

In a recent interview sociologist and demographer Emmanuel Todd, discussing the matter of China’s rise, argued that the country’s far-below-replacement level Total Fertility Rate (which Todd says is 1.3 per woman) makes unlikely the visions of the country as hegemon for the simple reason that its labor force is bound to contract sharply, with massive implications for its already slowing economy, and its national power.

Of course, considering this I find myself thinking of two counterarguments:

1. The 1.3 Total Fertility Rate (TFR) for China is in the wake of the pandemic, with its associated economic and other stresses. Before that it was up at about 1.7 — a significant difference, such that rebound is hardly out of the question.

2. Even if one takes the 1.3 TFR as a “new normal” for China the rate in question is not only evident across its neighborhood, but actually more advanced. (Japan’s TFR was scarcely above that before the pandemic, just 1.36, while South Korea’s slipped below 1 in 2018 and was at 0.92 in 2019, according to World Bank figures.)

3. Even if the drop were to go further in China than elsewhere China, with a population of 1.4 billion, is, even after a much more demographic contraction than in neighboring states (a scenario hardly in the cards), would still be a colossus relative to the other states (Japan today having scarcely an eleventh of China’s population, South Korea one-twenty-eighth its population.)

Still, China’s contraction is coming at a point at which it is rather poorer than neighbors like Japan and South Korea (with a per capita Gross Domestic Product of $10,000 a year, versus $40,000 for Japan, $30,000 for South Korea) — and already seeing its economic growth slow sharply (those legendary 10 percent a year rates a thing of the past, with the 2012–2019 average more like 7 percent and still falling). The result is that the demands of an aging population could weigh that much more heavily on its resources.

All the same, how much the fact will matter ultimately depends on how societies handle the matter of their aging populations. One can picture a scenario in which modern medicine succeeds in alleviating the debilitating effects of getting older, permitting older persons to need less care. One can also picture a scenario in which rising economic productivity more than makes up for the decline of the labor supply and the rise in the dependency ratio (perhaps by lowering the cost of living). In either case, or one combining the benefits of both, the demographic transition may turn out to be managed easily enough, in China and elsewhere. Yet one can picture less happy scenarios as well — and I am sorry to say, rather easily in light of the disappointments of recent decades on all these scores. But even in that eventuality I would not be too quick to envision the melodramatic collapse scenarios making the rounds of the headlines yet again in recent months.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy


Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.