The Most Populous Country on Earth with Not Enough People?

Tourists visit a street fair in Chengdu during National Day Week. Photo by Samuel Corwin.
Tourists visit a street fair in Chengdu during National Day Week. Photo by Samuel Corwin.

By Samuel Corwin

Living and studying abroad in Shanghai—one of the world’s most crowded cities—it shocks me that the Chinese government is worried about a lack of people. The metro is always packed with riders regardless of the time of day. And the public buses are so full that I oftentimes have to wait for the next one to board.

The People’s Republic of China enacted its controversial one-child policy in 1980, but it remains the most populous country in the world with over 1.3 billion people. In 2012, however, China’s working age population (ages 15-64) shrank for the first time in decades.

Only 12 percent of China’s population was over the age of 60 in 2010. But, by 2050, the United Nations projects that this figure will be around 34 percent. Now, China is worried that its increasing dependency ratio—which is the result of an aging population coupled with a shrinking working-age population—will not be able to sustain the country’s economy.

This growing fear actually caused the government to turn its one-child policy into a two-child policy last month. But despite the government’s desire for more people (and regardless of the policy’s effects) there are other factors limiting population growth.

China’s rate of urbanization is one of them. While it took Britain 100 years and the United States 60 years to increase the urban population from 20 percent to 54 percent, China was able to accomplish this feat in a mere 30 years. By 2030, it is estimated that China’s city-dwelling population will be 70 percent of the total population, or one billion people.

This astonishing growth can be attributed to China’s rural population, which has increasingly migrated to big cities in search of higher-paying jobs and a chance at a better life. The problem is that, compared to rural areas, cities are incredibly expensive—a factor that prevents many city dwellers from choosing to have more than one child, regardless of government policy.

A Chinese friend of mine put the economic stressors into perspective: Nursing homes in China are far less prevalent that in the United States because it is customary to look after one’s parents and grandparents. Due to the one-child policy, only children living in large cities are responsible for taking care of their parents and two sets of grandparents. This is a timely and expensive endeavor that can leave only children without the proper funds to raise a large family of their own.

While I view the Chinese government’s fear of a shrinking population as misplaced, I support its course of action: relaxing its family planning policy. My hope is that the government will completely abolish this policy in the coming years and return the nation to a state of natural population fluctuation. Family planning is a personal choice that should always be free of government involvement of any kind.

Samuel Corwin is a student at Duke University. He is currently studying abroad in Shanghai, China. 

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