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China shares demographic crisis with East Asian neighbors


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The announcement of the start of China’s population decline last week took many by surprise – the official forecast for the date when the number of deaths would exceed the number of births was 2025.

More than premature, for some the news sounded like an obstacle to the race of the Asian giant for the top of the world economy.

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The peak of a nation’s development usually occurs when the largest share of its population is an adult. At an economically active age, not only does it have the potential to produce more wealth but, in general, it generates less burden for the State.

When aging without having anyone to replace its workforce, however, this same population comes to represent, in parts, a burden for governments. And in China, home to nearly a fifth of the world’s population, that weight is considerable to say the least.

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In a way, though, the country has only met the same fate as its neighbors in East Asia — and, ultimately, all developing nations. Consequences of economic growth such as the rising cost of living, pressure from the job market, and changes in the way people relate to each other are all factors that lead many to postpone or even give up having children.

The difference, in the case of Beijing, is that its population decline was largely defined by its controversial one-child policy from 1979 to 2015 (today, each family can have up to three children).

UN data indicate that Japan was the first country in the region to complete its demographic transition, in 2010. Since then, it has lived with fertility rates of around 1.3 children per woman —the necessary to guarantee population growth is from 2.1.

A negative record the year before last prompted the otherwise low-key Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to make a dramatic address earlier this week at the official opening of parliament. “It’s now or never,” he said. “Our nation is at the limit of whether it can maintain its social functions.”

South Korea followed the same path from 2020 onwards. Since then, the country has held the world’s lowest fertility record of 0.87. It is not alone—rates below the 2.1 mark are repeated across East Asia, including data provided by North Korea (1.79). The exception is Mongolia, whose number is 2.8.

Despite this panorama, researchers say that, whether for China or for other countries, the situation is far from being catastrophic as some describe. Stuart Gietel-Basten, professor at the University of Science and Technology in Hong Kong and Khalifa University, in Abu Dhabi, points out that a country’s population is one of many factors that influence the economy.

More than that, “having more babies is not going to fix the retirement system if it is broken”, argues the researcher. “Don’t get me wrong: if the fertility rate in Japan, Korea or China were a little bit higher, it would be easier for them to adapt to the challenges ahead. But it wouldn’t solve the problem.”

But when it comes only to demography, these countries do face great adversity. Professor of international relations at ESPM, Alexandre Uehara says that these nations are not only less attractive to foreigners due to language and cultural barriers, but the region’s governments themselves are less open to immigration.

Japan, for example, has only recently started to change its laws to allow more immigrants, even though it has had fertility rates lower than 2.1 since 1975, according to the UN.

Another problem is the fact that these are more traditional societies in terms of gender roles. This leads to an expectation that women assume a greater burden of domestic work than their partners — even if they have a similar level of education and insertion in the labor market. The result is that they often postpone or give up getting pregnant.

The solutions presented by local governments, generally centered on encouraging the population to have more children, do not seem to have been effective. Even so, they keep insisting on the path. Last year, Japan announced that it would increase the amount each couple earns for having their first child from 420,000 yen to 500,000 yen.

South Korea, for its part, promised a monthly allowance of 700,000 won to families with newborns and increased the period of paternity leave (valid for mothers and fathers) from 12 months to 18 months. Meanwhile, China has been experimenting with monthly subsidy payments at municipal and provincial levels.

“I think the leaders don’t understand that maternity is not something that lasts six months or a year”, says Laura Wong, vice-president of the International Union for Scientific Population Studies and professor at UFMG (Federal University of Minas Gerais).

She claims that what is noticeable in state policies such as those proposed by Japan and Korea is that they can even encourage women who were already planning to become pregnant to carry out their plans. But they do not interfere with the number of children desired, nor do they impact the decision to get pregnant.

The researcher considers that, while gender inequality can cause a drop in the fertility rate, it is also true that policies that encourage equality between men and women can lead the population to consider having more children, as was the case of some Scandinavian countries —which, for the most part, continue with suboptimal rates.

Wong says that the exception to this scenario of infertility in Asia may be China. By having an authoritarian regime, the country ended up exercising more control over the directions of the population.

In any case, moments like the demographic transition that the country is experiencing now can serve as an opportunity to think about the future and invest in the new generations, which will sustain the others, says the researcher. Something that, she stresses, Brazil did not do when it should.

Uehara is another who draws parallels between the situation of the countries in the region and the Brazilian reality, which should face a population decline around 2040. “We know that we are on the same path. We have to look a lot at these economies to try to anticipate our answers.”

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