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China's population declines for the 2nd year in a row


The most populous nation in the world, China, is losing people. For the second year in a row, China's population has declined. Birthrates reached a new low, and death rates were the highest they'd been in 50 years. According to the country's National Bureau of Statistics, the total number of people in China dropped by over 2 million. And for some context, that is nearly the population of Houston, Texas. This shift has some people worried about the long-term health of the country and its economy. And to help us better understand these numbers, we are joined by Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Thanks for joining the show.

WANG FENG: You're welcome, Scott.

DETROW: So I know that you take a more optimistic view on this than many other observers. But before we get into that specifically, let's just explain what's going on here. What are some of the causes of China's population decline?

FENG: Well, the accelerating decline is driven by three forces. The first is actually what we call a demographic echoing effect. That is, the smaller births we've been seeing in the last few years, a decade or so, is a reflection of the smaller birth cohorts of the parents' generation.

DETROW: Yeah, there were fewer children being born due, in part, to the one-child policy and other factors. Now there are fewer adults having fewer children. It seems like it's kind of the next step.

FENG: Exactly. So we have fewer adults reaching the childbearing age. But that's not the - I think the most interesting part. The most interesting parts are the next two. One is that in the last three decades, young people - men and women, especially women - are postponing and leaving marriage. And then third factor in terms of low birth rate is even for those married women and men, they are choosing either not having children or staying with only one child. So combined you have this declining birth number year after year.

DETROW: Many major countries are looking at a similar dip in population over the coming decades. Is this trickier to figure out in China, though, a country of so many people and a country that has seen such explosive growth in so many different ways over the previous decades?

FENG: Well, it is different for China, I do think so, for a number of reasons. No. 1, it's the economic growth model, how China has been able to achieve this spectacular economic growth in the last 40 years or so. And that, as noted by many, is driven largely by a young, productive and exploited labor force, mostly migrants from rural areas, and that source is depleting. So in terms of the economic growth model, where the growth comes from, this important source is weakening and - if not ending.

And No. 2 is the way that the Chinese political legitimacy is based (ph). And that is, the government has made the promise to support the large number of elderly and to be the new paternalistic redistributor. So people are expecting that, especially the large number of elderly or soon to be elderly, who are parents of the only children generation, and they are expecting that government to play important role in supporting the old age. And with economic slowing down, with the decline in government revenues - and this could pose a political challenge to the power holders in China if they could not deliver the promise that they once made.

DETROW: We mentioned there's been a lot of concern about the negatives of a decline in population and that you have written that there's a more optimistic way to look at it. Can you walk us through some of your reasons for optimism, what you think are some of the positives of this possible trend?

FENG: We are looking at the healthiest and the most educated generation in China, especially, I think, in this case, in China, things have happened so fast - the rapid expansion in higher education and the continued improvement in population health. So we are really not looking at the same population in China today as the population 40 years ago, let alone 80 years ago. So we have a different population to begin with. And also, we're already seeing this with the new technologies and most recently with the hype around AI. A lot of the repetitive, unpleasant work in the past that have to be done by real human beings, and now can actually be done quite efficiently and inexpensively by the means of technology. And also, very importantly, we have to remember, we as a humanity - the whole world and in China certainly included - have produced so much. There's so much wealth in the society, and we can do a lot with redistribution both across different income groups but also across generations. So we don't need to continue to produce the - pursue GDP growth. We have produced so much, there's enough to go around.

DETROW: That is Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Thanks so much.

FENG: You're most welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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