China’s worker shortage

Posted on | January 21, 2013 by Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D. |

When I asked a group of security studies experts to contribute to a book on population decline–Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics–they took on the challenge with gusto despite misgivings about wading out of their areas of expertise. In the future, I assured them, it will influence everybody’s area of expertise.

One of the contributors, Gordon Chang, has been following China’s demographic demise since then, and his new column at examines Beijing’s announcement of the country’s looming worker shortage:

On Friday, Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics announced that China’s “working age” population—the 15 to 59 segment—totaled 937.27 million last year.  That number, as large as it is, represents a decline of 3.45 million from 2011.  Moreover, the workforce in 2012 comprised 69.2% of the population, 0.6% less than in 2011.

As Gordon’s chapter in the book demonstrated, Chinese demographers like Cai Fang estimate the worker decline began in 2010, but the bottom line, as Chang notes, is that efforts to reverse it are too little too late:

Demography may not be destiny, but it will create high barriers for Chinese growth.  If Beijing’s leaders are to succeed, they will have to do so in spite of population trends, not because of them.

Unfortunately, they are not even trying to reverse China’s adverse demographic trajectory.  Although just about everyone believes that Beijing should drop the one-child policy, which has depressed population growth since 1979, there have been no substantial moves to do so.  Yes, officials talk about liberalization of birth restrictions, but they never get around to implementing needed change.  Yet even if they repealed the policy today, the beneficial economic effect would not be felt for years.

China, which has had one of the best demographic profiles of any nation, will soon have one of the worst.  The economic effect of population decline will, in all probability, be severe, long-lasting, and evident soon.



Turtle Bay and Beyond is a blog covering international law, policy and institutions. Our experts - at the UN, European Institutions, and elsewhere - explore an authentic understanding of international law, sovereignty, and the dignity of the human person. We expose those who would seek to impose a radical social vision that is contrary to these principles.


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