The United States and China are locked in a new battle, judging by the latest numbers: Which country can reduce its population the most?
China is set, shortly, to announce that its population has shrunk for the first time since the disastrous famine of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. It will post fewer than 1.4 billion people when the new numbers come out, according to the Financial Times, although the figures for now are top secret.
China had been due to release its census count in early April. But the "big reveal" has been delayed while Communist Party officials prepare their propaganda push. They want to spin the numbers as yet another sign that the party has put the country on the right path. On April 16, a spokesperson at the National Bureau of Statistics said the delay was as a result of "more preparation work" before the numbers are presented to the people that are actually part of that count.
It's crazy when something as simple as a headcount is highly classified. But that's how life is in China, where the truth is what the Communist Party says is the truth. We're sure to see the population figures prefaced by the usual blather that this great move forward only happens "under the strong leadership of the Communist Party of China with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core."
That's a lot of people under one man. China crossed the 1.4 billion-person mark in 2019. Its slip back below that line will be a small one, but will set it on course to soon be surpassed by India. India should have the largest population in the world at some point in 2027, based on current projections.
India's population will stand at 1.339 billion as of July, according to the CIA World Factbook. Actually the same source, which I find pretty comprehensive and like to use to keep the data comparable, forecasts China's population as 1.398 billion as of July, already slightly below 1.4 billion. India's 1.04% population-growth rate is far above the 0.26% in China - a number that the new figures should show has turned negative.
China has, of course, brought the low fertility numbers on itself. The country only abandoned its drastic one-child policy in 2015, allowing all couples to have two children. It introduced that scheme in 1979, and by the mid-1990s, the forced family size had been effective enough that the fertility rate dropped below two children per woman. Lifting the policy has not encouraged a return to larger families.
This news prompted me to take a look at fertility rates the world over. There's a great country-by-country comparison here, again courtesy of the CIA World Factbook.
African countries are currently the most fertile. What caught my attention was the roster of countries that are producing the fewest babies. They're all here in developed Asia: Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, South Korea, and right at the bottom, Taiwan, producing 1.07 little people per mother.
Here in Hong Kong, people do genuinely say "I can't afford to have another child." I was born in Britain, and I don't recall every really hearing that kind of discussion there, or during the 11 years I lived in the United States. But in Asia, prospective parents are pricing in child care, schooling, cramming courses, college, a few piano or violin lessons sprinkled in, all producing a raw number.
In Hong Kong, that figure is an inflation-adjusted HK$7.3 million (US$937,000). That's if you send your kids to private school, private college, live in mid-range private accommodation, drive a Camry, and have middling spending, including a few special-interest, sports and cram classes for your kid.
There's a highly informative calculator here, from the Bauhinia Foundation, a Hong Kong think tank. You can tinker around with any of those variables.
The numbers may change a little in those other Asian nations - the price of private accommodation is particularly high in Hong Kong, by some counts the most-costly in the world - but the point is that having a child, not to mention a second one, is going to seriously damage your family's bottom line. Even if you can withstand one kid, having a second one seems prohibitively expensive to many people.
I can vouch for that! Sending two kids to international school in Hong Kong is extremely expensive. We're lucky to get some bursary help, but the expat packages that used to cover housing, schooling and private country-club membership are about as common as tigers in the wild in Hong Kong. (The last confirmed tiger was killed here in 1915 after mauling two policemen to death, although there have been sporadic one-off reports since then).
East Asian demographics are reflecting that kind of calculation. The United States reproductive rate is 1.84 kids per woman, similar to the 1.86 in my native Britain, with China lower at 1.60. Japan, famously, is one of the lowest large nations, at 1.38, the 10th-least-fertile country in the world. In Hong Kong, the number is 1.22. India is above replacement rate, at 2.28 children per female.
Quite honestly, I think there are enough people in the world already. "Earth Overshoot" day falls in August, the point at which the planet has exhausted its resources for the year. We need the equivalent of 1.6 Earths to support the current 7.8 billion people on the planet.
It would be encouraging if those low-fertility nations create a different definition for "progress," one that does not depend on constant GDP growth. Productivity improvements and a better use of existing resources in those largely urban nations would be much better than attempting to concrete over the rest of the countryside in a quest for never-ending development. See extinct tigers, above.
The urban population exceeded the rural population in China for the first time during the last decade. The children born into the one-child generation are now having children, resulting in the low reproductive rate, but those cost-of-living equations are taking place in mainland China, as well.
With China and the United States both posting historically low population change, there will be an extra strain on social services, added pressure on the healthcare sector, and declining demand for discretionary consumption, real estate and the like. This doesn't look good on paper. But in Japan, cities still look highly successful. It's only in rural or fringe urban areas that you feel any hollowing out.
China is about to take the contentious step of raising its retirement age. That is relatively low, at 60 for most men, and 55 for white-collar female employees, and only 50 for women with blue-collar jobs. Premier Li Keqiang said at the opening of China's parliament in March that the country would raise the retirement age in a "phased manner." People due to retire soon will only have to work a few additional months, but younger people will have to work years longer. It's a highly unpopular decision.
Demographics are pretty dry. Censuses are pretty boring. Not at this time.
The U.S. census became contentious after the administration of former president Donald Trump tried to add a question to the form that would have asked whether respondents are American citizens, which would put off a lot of immigrants, legal or not. The administration also sought to get unauthorized immigrants removed from the count, which quite clearly would have made it less accurate, and less useful as a result.
Neither attempt worked. When those efforts didn't succeed, the Trump team tried to stop the count early. It went ahead. You can try to bend "facts" into "alternative facts" that suit you. But as we've seen with the coronavirus, it's more useful to get the real number. Face facts, don't shape them.
As of Monday, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo declared the count official, "complete and accurate." There is sure to be additional political bickering when the state-by-state figures are released. That must happen by September 30, and will result in how electoral districts are redrawn. It matters. If New York State had counted 89 additional people, for instance, it would have retained the seat in the House of Representatives that it now stands to lose.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported on Monday that the U.S. population grew at its second-slowest rate since the country started recording such statistics in 1790. Not since the Great Depression in the 1930s, when the population grew 7.3%, has the United States headcount risen so slowly, climbing 7.4% through April 1, 2020, compared to the same time a decade ago. There are, officially, 331,449,281 Americans.
A low birth rate makes sense for developed nations. Parents can afford to spend more resources and, most important, more time on their children. We don't need endless growth. Faced with these raw population numbers, the less-fertile world must chart a new course that makes best use of what we already have, and the people who are already here.