On January 17, 2020, China’s National Bureau of Statistics released the following numbers — at the end of 2019, the Chinese population stood at 1.4 billion, with 715 million males, 684 million females, for a male-female ratio of 104.5 to 100. There were 14.65 million births and 9.98 million deaths, so the population increased by 4.67 million. It sounds reasonable, but in fact, every one of these numbers is a mirage.
To unravel the mystery, we must go back nearly 40 years. A critical concept in demography is the notion of the Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB) or the number of male births per hundred female births. In 1982, according to the National Bureau of Statistics in China, 108 males were born for every 100 females for an SRB of 108, reflecting deep-rooted social prejudices in favour of the male child familiar throughout Asia. The one-child policy was officially enforced around the same time. Since only one child was allowed, to select only boys, systematic sex-selection became rampant.
Consequently, the SRB rose steadily over the next couple of decades to reach a high of 121 in 2009, falling back a little to 111.9 in 2017, the last year for which the SRB numbers are available. For 35 years, then, this ratio has been between 110 and 120, which happens to be the worst SRB in the world. Yet in all the official statistics during the same period, the sex ratio in the population as a whole is stated to be between 104 and 106. For 2019, it is shown as 104.45.
The absurdity of this situation is immediately obvious. You can’t start in 1982 with 8 per cent more males than females overall, and then for nearly 40 years, have 10 per cent to 20 per cent more males being born every year, and arrive in 2019 with only 4.5 per cent more males than females!
If we dive deeper, we find that the Chinese census of 2000 shows that there were 90.15 million Chinese in the age group 5-10. Fifteen years later, this cohort would be in the age group 20-25, but in 2015 that number is 100.31 million. Rather than the population in this cohort falling because of normal mortality, it has increased by over 10 million. If we follow this cohort in 2018, the latest figures which are available, that number swelled to 113.38 million, meaning that there are 23.23 million extra ghost people. Of these, 9.8 million are men, while 13.35 million are women.
Further, this is just one five-year cohort. Similarly, in the previous cohort, there are 14 million additional people, and so on. China is undoubtedly a manufacturing super-power. But to maintain the fiction of a normal gender balance and the Communist party line on population numbers, China has taken to manufacturing people. All told, it is very likely that the population of China has been overstated by at least 100 million to maintain the fiction that China is the largest country in the world and not India.
If we look at the Chinese workforce, that is the population aged 15-59, then even the official Chinese statistics indicate a peak in 2011 at 940.4 million. It has fallen every year since then, and in 2019 was 896.4 million, a nearly 5 per cent decline from its peak, also pointing to an overall population decline.
The situation concerning the number of births is equally grim. In 2017, there were supposedly 17.23 million births, but they had fallen catastrophically to 14.65 million in 2019. This official number is still lower than the number of births 60 years ago when the population of China was less than half what it is today. Even this low number is an over-estimate since the number of births recorded in Chinese hospitals (and 99.9 per cent of Chinese babies are born in hospitals) is lower by 1.6 million. The published Chinese fertility rates imply an even lower number. By contrast, the Chinese death rates are underestimated, as is often the case in many countries. Last year, Yi Fuxian, from the Medical School of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, and Su Jian, a professor of Economics and the director of the Centre for National Economic Research at Peking University, published a paper in Chinese, “2018: A Historical Turning Point”. Their paper has since then been removed from the internet and banned. Their striking conclusion was that in 2018 with 10.31 million births and 11.58 million deaths, China’s population shrank by 1.27 million. The last time China had fewer than 10 million births was in the middle of the Qing dynasty in 1790 when the population of China was 300 million!
Here the experience of Japan in the 1980s may be instructive since it was ascendant at that time. It, too, went through a period of very rapid growth and technological expansion. Japanese politicians and industry leaders confidently predicted a period of Japanese supremacy. Shintaro Ishihara was then a flamboyant Japanese novelist, actor, and film director. He later became a cabinet minister as well as the governor of Tokyo, and in 1989, wrote a book with Akio Morita, the chairman of Sony Corporation. The book was called The Japan That Can Say No. They argued for the innate superiority of the Japanese people, of its society and its businesses, and for the use of Japanese technology as a weapon to push back against the US, going so far as to propose denying it Japanese semi-conductors that powered its nuclear missiles. Ishihara even argued for a “Falklands-style” war with China to liberate the disputed Senkaku islands.
But then two things happened that dramatically altered the geopolitical situation. First, the Japanese population started to taper off around 1995, reaching a peak in 2005, and started its steady decline after that. Secondly, the US, as the largest market for Japan at that time, pushed back as it is doing today with China. Japan never really recovered its momentum after these two shocks. Of these, the demographic shock was more consequential. Rapid economic growth requires a rapid expansion of both labour and capital, which are the two wheels of economic progress. If either factor plateaus, so does economic growth. Predictably, however, the Chinese Communist Party is reacting with obfuscation.
Hardline Chinese elements today are convinced that it is their destiny to be the dominant power in the world. They are eager to colonise the South China Sea and to show the US and India their place. They wish to invade and occupy Taiwan. This combination of arrogance and obfuscation is volatile and always ends in tragedy. This behaviour is not very different from their ideological role model, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which under Stalin and Lysenko in the 1930s and ’40s, tried to alter the laws of biology by outlawing the theories of Darwin.
The Chinese Communist Party has gone one step further by undoing the laws arithmetic since simple addition does not apply to its population statistics. After nearly 40 years of collective malfeasance, Chinese population statistics must rank as the least reliable in the world.
China is staring at a population crisis. The outcome for it is likely to be much worse than with Japan, perhaps not immediately, but certainly over the next decade. And shrinking populations cannot sustain expansive dreams.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 8, 2020 under the title ‘A shrinking China’. The writer is President and Director, MICA, Ahmedabad. Views are personal