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People hold white sheets of paper in protest over COVID-19 restrictions in Beijing, after a vigil for the victims of a fire in Urumqi on Nov. 28.THOMAS PETER/Reuters

The Chinese government will probably be able to contain the protests over COVID-19 restrictions. Beijing will probably be able to contain the protests that come after that, which may be about COVID-19 or something else. But what about the protests after that? And the ones after that?

People who are pushing back against excessive restrictions by an authoritarian regime are also reacting to a slow-moving demographic apocalypse, though many of them might not know it.

China’s population will probably begin to decline this year, and will continue to decline every year after that. The country will lose half of its population by the end of the century, possibly sooner. These losses will place an enormous strain on the country’s economy and social fabric. We can expect repeated waves of protests. Maybe worse.

According to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics, China’s total fertility rate (the average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime) fell to 1.15 in 2021. That is one full baby short of the 2.1 children-per-woman needed to sustain a population.

Worried about the dangers of overpopulation, the Communist government imposed its Draconian one-child policy in 1979. Like so many authoritarian restrictions, the policy had unintended consequences: For decades, hundreds of millions of Chinese parents had one child. They got used to it.

Saunders: China will soon not be the world’s most populated country. That’s good – so why is Beijing fretting?

Alarmed by falling fertility, the government raised the ceiling to two children in 2015, and to three children last year. But the fertility rate continued to fall.

Many countries, including Canada, have fertility rates below replacement rate. (Ours is 1.4.) We make up the shortfall through immigration – something that China, whose population is more than 92 per cent Han Chinese, discourages.

For a variety of reasons – including insufficient government supports for child care, the high cost of tutors to give a child an advantage at school and a stigma against giving birth outside marriage – China and other East Asian societies have some of the lowest fertility rates in the world.

The upshot: The World Economic Forum estimates that China’s population will start to decline in 2022.

“The world’s biggest nation is about to shrink,” the report declares.

Unless fertility rates rebound – and no country in the world has brought its fertility rate back up to replacement rate, though several have tried – the world’s most populous country, with 1.4 billion people, will lose more than half its population over the course of this century, the Shanghai Academy of Science predicts. Another study, reported last year in the South China Morning Post, warns the population could halve within the next 45 years.

This will place an intolerable strain on younger workers. Because there will be fewer people entering the workforce every year, there will be fewer consumers available to buy the things that drive an economy. And this ever-shrinking pool of workers will see more and more of their income funnelled into supports for the elderly.

“China’s low fertility and declining number of working-age population will definitely result in slower economic growth” along with “social and economic inequalities,” said Ito Peng, Canada Research Chair in Global Social Policy at University of Toronto, in an e-mail exchange.

“As the labour market becomes increasingly more precarious and divided, and as the income gap continues to rise, I think it will lead to more social and economic polarization,” she continued.

Many China observers speak of a post-Tiananmen Square social contract: After the suppressed demonstrations in 1989, the state promised prosperity if people avoided politics and left the Communist Party in charge.

But each year going forward, the state will find it harder to fulfill its side of the bargain, as fewer and fewer young people support more and more old people in a slowing economy.

Many people around the world will welcome a world in which there are half a billion fewer people contributing to global warming and otherwise taxing the resources of the Earth.

But urging Chinese workers to embrace the limits of growth won’t ease their financial burden. Many of them won’t accept such hardship quietly.

The recent protests are the most extensive in more than 30 years. But they may be just the beginning.