One of the few things that our two venal, intellectually bankrupt parties agree on is that China is an existential threat to the U.S. It is not. Rather, China is probably at or near its peak global influence before its relevance to the rest of the world begins a long, slow descent. I will lay out why I believe this is the case in several posts over the coming weeks. But let's start with the big one.
Demographics is Destiny
China’s biggest challenge arises from the demographic trap its one-child policy caused. That policy was implemented in 1979 before it was abandoned in 2015. China’s fertility rate has been below the population maintenance rate of approximately 2.1 since the early 1990s. Since the late 1990s it has averaged about 1.7. Current government programs encouraging young Chinese to have larger families seem to be having little effect.
China’s national statistical agency recently announced that its population declined in 2022, and the UN is now projecting India will overtake China as the country with the largest population this year. While China’s population growth in the middle part of the last century was clearly unsustainable, the abrupt reduction in the fertility rate has produced a problematic population age pyramid and an unnatural balance between the genders.
China’s age population pyramid has already inverted and will get much worse over the next several decades. The most likely scenario is that its population will fall by over 100 million people in just 30 years. Some commentators, like Peter Zeihan, think the numbers are much more dire than China is admitting. Given the sketchy veracity of Chinese government data, I suspect Zeihan's numbers are closer to what is actually going on.
No country has ever lost that much population in that short a time. It will create all sorts of unrest and strain on China and limit its ability to project its strength and influence in the rest of the world. For example, in just 30 years, it will have about half as many men of military age from which to recruit soldiers as it has today.
As the population growth pyramid grows more inverted there will be strains on China’s healthcare system and it will increasingly find it difficult to provide cheap labor to global markets. There will be downward pressure on economic growth and standards of living.
Also, today there are about 20-25 million more young men from 15-35 than young women of the same age. That is largely because when families could only have one child, they preferred sons. Just think about the Chinese government’s challenges in trying to manage the pent-up energy of a population of young men the size of Florida with no prospect of finding a wife or starting a family.
The basic social contract between the Chinese Community Party and the Chinese people has been that as long as the party provides security (mostly from internal strife1) and a rising economic tide, the Chinese people will tolerate an autocratic government regime. But China’s growing demographic challenges are going to make it increasingly difficult for the Communist Party to live up to its end of the bargain.
As that bargain becomes frayed, it may make its government act more erratically as it struggles to maintain control. For example, I think its current aggressiveness toward Taiwan is, in large measure, an attempt to divert the attention of the Chinese people away from the aftermath of its colossal mismanagement of the pandemic.
So, it is likely that the U.S. and the rest of the word will have manage a Chinese government that regularly misbehaves, perhaps quite badly sometimes, for the next couple of decades. Of course, that will make China a convenient scapegoat for our two parties to blame their ineptitude for dealing our problems. But as far as China coming to dominate the world, you can scratch that off your worry list.
Note 1 – As I discussed in this post, because their history one of the great fears of the Chinese people is anarchy and civil war.