How China’s population decline could alter the global economy

The world’s most populous country hit a historic turning point. China announced its first population decline in six decades with 850,000 fewer people at the end of last year than in 2021. Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Mei Fong joined Geoff Bennett to discuss the cause of the decline and what it could mean for the global economy.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    The world's most populous country has hit an historic turning point.

    Today, China announced its first population decline in six decades. China's National Bureau of Statistics said the country had 850,000 fewer people at the end of last year than in 2021, bringing its total population to 1.4 billion. China's birth rate also hit a record low last year.

    Mei Fong joins us now, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist with more than a decade of reporting experience in Asia. Her book "One Child" explores the implications of China's former one child policy.

    Mei, it's great to have you here.

    And this marks a new milestone in China's deepening demographic crisis. To what can this decline be attributed?

    Mei Fong, Author, "One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment": Well, Geoff, I mean, China's not unusual in having seen a population decline. Most modern nations where women are educated and have smaller families do see that.

    What's unusual about China is that this transition has occurred at a much-accelerated speed. What takes most developed nations maybe 50 years to arrive at this point, China has arrived in, in one generation. And that's because of the one child policy.

    And what this means is, it's very unique, in that not only does it have fewer people. It also has a very bad mix of fewer people, in that a large portion of the population is very male. And that's because of the one child policy. So the challenges for China going ahead is that it will be hard for it to overcome this population decline because of these factors.

    The fact that it's very wholly male, a hugely elderly population will make it much, much harder.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    This new data came alongside the announcement of China's worst economic performance in nearly half-a-century.

    So, what are the implications for China's economy?

  • Mei Fong:

    Well, this — the population decline is one of the demographic — one of the economic headwinds that China faces. It's not the only one, but it is quite a difficult one to overcome, with one in four of Chinese people will be a retiree by 2050.

    So, the worker-to-retiree ratio is going to be a huge, and some of the results of that will definitely impede economic growth, for example, pension shortfalls, huge public health implications, big economic implications for the growth markets. The kind of markets where we see innovation, where we see creativity are typically younger work force markets, and not elderly populations.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    How concerned is the Chinese government about this decline and the potential impacts on Chinese society?

  • Mei Fong:


    I mean, in the most recent speech that Xi Jinping made, he actually talked about the need to talk about population and the need to support and grow population for the first time. And for Chinese leaders, where they make a lot of very oblique references, this was about as explicit as you may get.

    And, of course, one of the very clear reason — ways that we saw that the Chinese government is very worried about it is the sudden whipsawing of going from a one child policy to a two- and a three-child policy in a relative span of just five years. The one child policy was 30 — 30-plus years, and now we have gone one, two, three, in less than five years, five, six years.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    So what then would a solution look like? Is it as simple as encouraging people to have more children?

  • Mei Fong:

    No, it hasn't worked at all.

    They said, please have one. You went from having just one child to just one more, please, and then one more. And, obviously, for the last five or six years, it hasn't worked. The solution, I think, will come in a variety of ways.

    Yes, incentives will have to be a part of it, because China has, I think, more historically gone the disincentives routes, punishments, not rewards. And so they're starting to go in that route a little bit, but they need to be doing it a lot more.

    And the other part of it also is, I think, China is very unique because the population now is so very male and it's so very elderly. I mean, the statistic is, if all of China's retirees would form their own nation, they would be one of the world's top population rates, after China and India, which is poised to overtake China now as the largest population.

    Then there would be senior China itself. And so these are very unique challenges for China that no other nation that's facing popular decline faces. And that's because of the one child policy.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Mei Fong, thanks so much for your insights. We appreciate it.

  • Mei Fong:

    Thank you.

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