The recent news of China’s dwindling population has called into question the demographic predictions of the UN and other experts. According to the World Economic Forum, after reaching 925 million in 2011, China’s working-age population is expected to fall to 700 million by 2050.
Unlike many Western countries already in swift transition to a demographic winter, China and other major Asian powers (Japan and South Korea) are not using immigration to offset declining birth rates. In 2020, the relative share of immigrants as a percentage of the total population in Japan was 2% and in China, it was only 0.2%. It remains difficult for a foreigner to obtain residency in China and virtually impossible to obtain citizenship. On the other hand, 17% of people living in Germany in 2021 were born abroad and a third of them had obtained German citizenship.
The Pew Research Center has estimated that by the second half of the century, a third of the US population – more than 100 million people – will be immigrants and their US-born children. And immigrants to the US (and their children) have an even greater economic footprint: 44.6% of the 500 largest US companies were founded by immigrants or their children, from technology giants like Google to the wholesale chain Costco and the jeans brand Levi’s. We did not find similar data in Europe but there is no shortage of cases of successful 1st or 2nd generation immigrant entrepreneurs; a good example is the ethnically Turkish couple – Uğur Şahin and Özlem Türeci – who created German BioNTech.
Prof. Joseph Nye recounts a past conversation with former Singaporean PM (and advisor to several governments in China) Lee Kuan Yew, who is reported to have asked if China would surpass the US in total power; to which Lee is reported to have said no because America can source and recombine the world’s talents in ways that are simply not possible under China’s Han ethnic nationalism.
Simultaneously, there is still a large outflow of Chinese emigration. Demographers at the UN estimate that from 2023 to 2100, an average of 310,000 Chinese nationals will leave China per year, a total of c. 24 million people. It is not likely that China can prevent its nationals from leaving in search of a better life in other countries or to join family members.
Intense internal migration, from rural to urban areas, despite the problems it has created for the hukou (residence permit) system, has created an “industrial reserve army” in urban China that generates a permanent oversupply of unskilled labor. However, such migration is winding down and is expected to peak by 2030.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government is developing incentives for an increase in the fertility rate, whose success nobody thinks it will be different from similar programs in other countries with declining (and aging) populations. Only an active immigration policy can solve or reduce the population decline in China. In times of exaltation of Han ethnic nationalism, strongly encouraged by the authorities, will the Chinese government be able to adopt a policy of attracting immigrants to restore balance in a number of economic sectors?