Dr. Babatunde Ahonsi, UNFPA Representative in China
Population development has always been a fundamental, overall and strategic issue facing human society. Since the beginning of the 21st century, China's population structure has undergone major transformations, and there will be landmark changes in the near future. In an interview with China Today, Dr. Babatunde Ahonsi, UNFPA Representative in China, says: “China is facing a situation of sustained low fertility and rapid aging.” These trends not only directly change the situation and tasks facing population development, but also bring tremendous and far-reaching impact on social and economic development.
Changes in Demographic Structure
Since the reform and opening-up kicked off, China's population development has achieved tremendous progress. The quality of population and the level of urbanization have been greatly improved, and together with population mobility, has contributed a huge demographic dividend to social and economic development. At the same time, China implemented family planning in an all-round way to effectively control the rapid growth of population and effectively alleviate the pressure on resources and environment, promoting the economic development, social progress and improvement of people's livelihood.
However, as China's population development enters the stage of deep transformation, certain challenges that cannot be ignored are constantly emerging, and population development has entered a new normal state. In recent years, China's working-age population has continued to decline, the number of elderly people rapidly increased, and the fertility rate is quite low. Ahonsi points out that the total fertility rate in China is down to 1.5 to 1.6 births per woman, which is even lower than the levels in most other developing countries. China's fertility rate is far below the replacement level of 2.1, at which women give birth to enough babies to sustain the country’s population. This indicates that the phenomenon of sustained low fertility is an indisputable fact.
Over the four decades of reform and opening-up, China has witnessed drastic population changes. In the future, rather than having a population that is too large, China will face problems of a shrinking population, more aging people and unbalanced demographic structure.
The Demographic Dividend Still Exists
In view of the new changes in China's population, arguments that China has entered an era of negative labor force growth persist. Ahonsi says: “China's demographic dividend can be extended into the future.” He points out that China's demographic dividend has contributed at least 25% to China's economic growth over the past 30 years. Although China has entered the era of low fertility, the size of the working-age population is still huge. The proportion of working-age population aged 15 to 64 is about 70% of the total population. “so they constitute an asset going forward for the national economy and society.”
On January 21, 2019, when discussing the population situation in China, Ning Jizhe, Director-General of the National Bureau of Statistics, stated that the population of China maintained a positive growth in 2018, with a population of 15.23 million births throughout the year. Moreover, the labor resources reach nearly 900 million, China's demographic dividend still exists. "Historically, we have had a population peak, and now the structural changes of the population occur naturally. Therefore, the demographic structure changes with the development of economy and society. The factors that support the long-term and medium-term improvement of China's economy have not changed and will not change.”
According to He Dan, director of the China Population and Development Research Center, the period stretching from 1970s to 2010 was the first half of the demographic dividend. During this phase, China's comparative advantage of labor force has been fully utilized, which enabled the country to get rid of large-scale poverty and achieve an economic takeoff.
High-Tech Labor Force Promotes the Development of Digital Economy
He Dan pointed out that the second half of the demographic dividend will be extending from 2010 to 2035. At this stage, labor costs rise and economic growth slows down. But at the same time, the changes in China's industrial structure are synchronized with the changes in population. The dividends based on population size are mainly reflected in certain low-value-added, middle-low-end manufacturing industries, and the dividends will gradually decrease with the development of the economy. As Chinese enterprises gradually transition into the middle and high-end manufacturing, competition with the international market shall depend more on new technologies and models.
Ahonsi notes: “you have a large population that is highly skilled, China has invested heavily in artificial intelligence, robotics and innovation-based high end manufacturing and services. The changing structures of the economy will make it easier for China to cope with changes in the age structure of the population. It is the productivity of a population that determines economic growth, not necessarily the size and its structure of the population. The working-age population is large enough and skilled enough to be able to take advantage of the innovations, the digitalization.”
Sustainable Population Development Embarking on a Long Road
Promoting the sustainable development of population is not only a major historical task at present, but also a major historical mission of contemporaries.
The Chinese leadership has vowed to promote a long-term balanced development of the population, improve the population development strategy, and undertake actions to respond to the aging population. This is a strategic move adopted by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China considering the long-term development of the Chinese nation and following the laws of population development, exerting enormous practical significance and long-term strategic importance.
In the future, the task of controlling population in China will be significantly weakened. The task of improving population structure and the quality of the population and promoting long-term balanced development of population will be gradually intensified.
The implementation of the two-child policy will not only promote the optimization of China's population age structure, but also inhibit the pursuit of fetal sex selection, which is conducive to make the sex ratio of the birth population to become normal. In the long run, China will not only focus on the issue of population itself, but also deal with the relationship between population and economy, society, resources and environment. We should comprehensively address the problems of population quantity, quality, structure and distribution, give priority to the overall development of human beings, devise a sound plan of population development policies, and promote the long-term balanced development of population.
Responding to the Concerns of the Two Sessions
The government work report issued at the second session of the 13th National People's Congress stated that the number of impoverished population in rural areas in China will be reduced by more than 10 million this year. Ahonsi notes: “I think the fact that China has made such historically unprecedented progress in eradicating extreme poverty is partly because of the targeted and precise responses it has deployed to lift millions of Chinese people out of poverty. And now the government has set the target of eradicating extreme poverty completely by 2020. The next challenge is how to raise the living standard of everyone to a much higher level over time. For a country that is really desirous of becoming a developed country in not too distant future, the goal is to reduce the number of people that are vulnerable to relative poverty.”
The most important political conference in China is related not only to macro policy, but also to the improvement of people's livelihood. People's Daily Online recently launched the Two Sessions survey, and the results showed that the fight against corruption, the overall rule of law, social security ranks the top three. Other topics of concern include education reform, internet+ government services, income distribution, housing system, ecological environment. Ahonsi is not surprised by the expectations expressed by the people.
“What we have now is a middle class society. The majority of Chinese people have a middle income lifestyle. Now the ambition of China today should not be really around quantity, but quality of growth. You shouldn't be surprised that people are more concerned about issues of rule of law, corruption, social security, and so on. Because those are the things that guarantee a good life. And when you address those issues that have been expressed in the survey, you can then be sure that not only the peoples’ living standard will improve, the quality of their life will also be improved. And that is the goal of development. The goal of development is not simply to meet basic needs, but to also enable people to fully actualize their potential as individuals and as members of society.”