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A man carries a child at a shopping mall in Beijing, Dec. 30, 2023. China’s population dropped by 2 million people in 2023 in the second straight annual drop as births fell and deaths jumped. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

The Communist Party’s incompetence has worsened a continuing demographic catastrophe in China, undermining hopes for its future.

The world faces a threat, not from a rising, powerful China, but from a China that is disaffected and in inevitable decline.

The National Bureau of Statistics reported Tuesday that China’s population had decreased in 2023 by about two million people, more than twice as many as the previous year’s drop of 850,000.

Only half as many babies were born last year as were born in 2016. Yi Fuxian, a demographer and scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, estimates that at its current total fertility rate of about one child per woman – less than half the 2.1 children per woman needed to keep a population stable – China’s population will collapse from 1.4 billion people today to about one billion in 2050 and 390 million by 2100.

By his reckoning, China’s share of the global population could decline from 22 per cent in 1980 to 11 per cent in 2050 and only 4 per cent in 2100.

“China’s demographic crisis is beyond the imagination of Chinese officials and the international community, and China’s economic outlook is bleaker than expected,” Mr. Yi wrote in an analysis of the latest data that he shared with me Wednesday. “China’s current economic downturn is not cyclical, but structural and irreversible.”

At one level, China’s population decline should be expected. South Korea, Japan and Taiwan all have fertility rates at, near or below one child per woman. All three are losing population.

But these democracies were not subjected to the social engineering beloved by Beijing, which in 1980 implemented its disastrous one-child policy. That cruel ban on couples having more than one child accelerated a decline in fertility that was already under way.

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The government increased the limit to two children in 2015 and three children in 2021. But autocratic leaders tend to rely on information they want to hear rather than information they need to hear. Authorities assumed that once the one-child limit was lifted, couples would start having more babies. Instead, the fertility rate continued to decline.

China has become a society in which having one child or no children at all is typical for a couple. That which is typical is not easily changed.

President Xi Jinping has begun talking about the need to “actively cultivate a new culture of marriage and child-bearing and strengthen guidance on young people’s view on marriage, childbirth and family.” The Chinese government is implementing or considering financial incentives and other supports for childrearing.

But while the men in suits in Beijing may decree that Chinese women should have more babies, that doesn’t mean they will obey. Women tell interviewers that children are expensive, limit their freedom and impede their careers. They have no desire to return to the old ways of homebound motherhood. In any case, many couples can’t afford to live on a single income, let alone raise several children.

Almost all developed and many developing countries are experiencing low fertility rates and societal aging. But Canada, the United States and some countries in Europe partly offset the impact through immigration. China does not welcome immigrants, preferring to preserve the ethnic homogeneity of its mostly Han Chinese population.

In consequence, China will experience a much deeper economic dislocation than its Western counterparts. The working-age population will decline to 700 million by 2050 from 900 million in 2011, according to a 2023 analysis by the Brookings Institution, even as the number of those 60 and over rises to 500 million from 200 million today.

China faces the bleak prospect in which fewer people enter the work force each year than entered it the year before, even as the number of older people grows, along with their health care and pension needs. Such a combination is a surefire recipe for economic stagnation.

It could also lead to growing social unrest. Will Beijing be able to contain an increasingly discontented population? Or will it look to divert their attention, perhaps by attempting to invade Taiwan?

World peace could be threatened, not by China’s rise, but by China’s fall.

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