There are numerous challenges that could derail China's march to super-power status including a collapse of the banking system, regional disintegration, environmental disaster, and military miscalculations. However, perhaps the most likely factor to prevent China's rise will be the one the government can least do anything about: demography. China, as always, has too many people; now, however, it is also lacking in females, youth, and sooner rather than later, a workforce to support its retired population.
The People are Plentiful, but the Workers are Few
In 1797, Robert Thomas Malthus wrote An Essay on Principles of Population which argued that there were natural limits to unchecked population growth. Overpopulation would ultimately be reversed by famine and disease. Modern China would have given Malthus a heart attack–a nation of 1.3 billion people modernizing faster and at a bigger scale than any nation in history. China's need for natural resources is being felt from Bolivia to Zambia. With China having to import rice from Thailand, fast-food chains serving millions of customers each day, and Chinese youth struggling with obesity, the amount of food and natural resources needed to give the world's most populous country energy is staggering. It is yet to be seen whether the world could support a prosperous China with a large middle and upper class making South Korean or American level wages.
However, China may never develop that high per capita, prosperous, middle-class due to another significant demographic problem: the bulk of China's workforce will be retiring soon. China's median age will increase from 30 to 41 by 2030 and reach 45 by 2050. China's working population (ages 15 to 59) will fall as a total percentage of the population. The shrinking labor pool will mean a greater need for migrants from within China and immigrants from beyond. With too few people from the younger generations in the work force even now, China's retired workers will be pressed to receive the government support they need in such a poor country. Ironically, China now needs more people (at least of a certain age) to become a top-tier country economically.
With an aging population and not enough people contributing to the country's coffers, the government's safety net will need to be supplemented by families taking care of each other. One would think that China, of all places, should be able to take care of its elderly due to its emphasis on strong filial ties. Throughout China's history, the Confucian emphasis on strong family and community bonds has helped China's aged survive the harshness of later years. But this traditional ethos is now being challenged by a more individualistic, Western mindset which has people preferring to live alone and focus on the nuclear family. In today's China, many women can now envision a life without a husband (as Japanese women started to in the last decade), and if they do marry, they may no longer want the burden of dealing with the husband's in-laws. The timing could not be worse. The move away from filial piety as life-expectancies in China grow dramatically is leaving many older people to wonder who will take care of them for the latter decades of their life. "Elder mistreatment," which may include physical abuse, is no longer unheard of in China, and it may be that in the future, there will be movements and charities that focus on preventing the abuse of the elderly. Meanwhile, China's children are revered, leading some to suspect that the recent spate of school attacks in China comes from a growing resentment toward the spoiled "little emperor" generation of children. The P.R.C.'s older policies are coming back to haunt their dreams of attaining economic superpower status.
Who Will Hold Up Half the Sky?
In the 1950s, the Great Leap Forward produced a society that viewed it as their patriotic duty to produce children. To the regime, it seemed like a good idea at the time. However, the end result was a population deemed too large to sustain economic development and stability. China then implemented the one-child policy in 1979, which slowed the growth rate, but left too few childrenparticularly too few females in post-Mao generations.
Throughout Han Chinese history, male children were often considered more valuable than female children since it was believed they would care for aging parents. Women, on the other hand, required dowries and were always lost to the husband's family. Agrarian societies like China depended on large families preferably with many male offspring. The abortion of millions of female fetuses that resulted from the one-child policy has been labeled "gendercide," leading this nation to suffer extreme imbalances. China's government, still needing population growth to remain low, changed tactics, and created laws to prevent the use of ultrasound technology for selective abortions.
Estimates about China's sex ratio vary, but according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), by 2020, China will have between 30 and 40 million more men under the age of 19 than there are women. This is the equivalent of every young male in the United States not having the potential to find a partner. According to CASS, the current ratio in China is 123 boys for every 100 girls. Rural China has an even higher rate. In villages throughout the country, it is clear that there are too few females, as is evidenced by villages with no women of marrying age and the thriving industries of sexual slavery and child kidnapping. Abductions are done on females to capture and reserve brides for sons. Boys are captured to be the male heir for a family with no sons. Chinese law enforcement has not been able to keep up with the abductions leaving many families in China existing in a silent state of mourning.
There are other ways of dealing with the shortage. Some Chinese men are dealing with the imbalance by choosing to marry women from Taiwan. Homosexuality, once considered taboo, is now more prevalent, particularly in the cities. The greatest fears, however, for countries facing an excess population of unmarried males, is that the nation will be destabilized by crime waves or war. With more Chinese women starting to view marriage as optional, and modernization leading to smaller families, China's "bare branches" as the men are called, will find it difficult to find a suitable mate.
A large population of frustrated, unmarried males is potentially threatening to China's future, but the problems for China do not stop there. A lack of women in the country means a lack of women in the workforce generating wealth and paying taxes. Furthermore, the innovation, creativity and management skills that women can bring to any economy will be absent, or like Japan, will create limitations to the economy as a result of women not being sufficiently empowered.
A Silver Lining?
Is there a silver lining in all of this for China? Many of these challenges are the result of the success of the P.R.C. in increasing life expectancies and making improvements in medicine, food and hygiene. A healthy but older population may keep China tame in the future. For those concerned that China may choose to become a militarily aggressive super-power threatening neighbors and starting wars, the lack of young people and the already dangerous imbalance of men to women may rule out high stakes military adventures.
China is trying to re-educate its people to value women and, over time, eradicate the anti-female mindset. Furthermore, modernization may enable older people to benefit from a bio-tech revolution. The baby-boomers in America (and in other developed countries) are already introducing a lot of products on the market to keep themselves healthy and productive. Their parents are living surprisingly long lives and retaining a high quality of life. These large demographic groups of aging people will most likely transform the world into a place where people retire later, accomplish more and support their nation-states financially by continuing to pay tax.
For a country like China, however, there is not much time. The population is already very old, and the economy is not developed enough to utilize older people to the extent that they can be used in the developed world. A considerably higher per capita gross domestic product would also be needed by the elderly in order to not get left behind in these opening decades of the 21st century. China in 2030 could be an older, wiser, and wealthier place, but it is demography, not foreign competitors that will provide the toughest obstacles to assuming its place as the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world.
Image credit: Image Credit: Little Emperors, by China Supertrends, via Flickr