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Opinion: How can China avoid demographic disaster? Return to religion

Confucianism welcomes children as gifts — part and parcel of the great chain that unites generations past and future

SHARE Opinion: How can China avoid demographic disaster? Return to religion

Population sustainability and economic growth are two pillars of human civilization, and religion can foster both.

Kevinsmithnyc, Wikimedia Commons

China is hurtling to a demographic disaster that is decades in the making. The country’s one-child policy, put in place more than four decades ago, has led to a rapid decline in the Middle Kingdom’s fertility rate, which fell below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman in 1991 before falling to 1.22 in 2000 and 1.05 in 2015.

China’s cratering fertility rate led its leadership to reverse its anti-natalist course by introducing a two-child policy in 2016, but that policy has not boosted the births. By our estimate, the total fertility rate for China was about 1.0 in 2020.

China is now facing a demographic crisis akin to the one that hit Japan, which saw its fertility fall first. Falling numbers of working-aged adults and rising numbers of dependent older adults in Japan threw that country into an economic crisis in the 1990s, and its economy has been largely stagnant since. “Getting growth from an aging, shrinking society is difficult,” as the World Economic Forum recently noted. Japan’s population is set to drop by about 600,000 people annually, making it the Land of the Setting Sun. 

China’s current demographic structure is similar to Japan’s in 1992, and China’s demographic structure in 2035 will be similar to Japan’s in 2018, which means that China is likely to experience Japanese-style stagnation. In fact, aging has already slowed China’s economic growth from 9.6% in 2011 to 6% in 2019.

In 2020, China had 4.9 workers ages 20-64 supporting one senior citizen ages 65 or above. The ratio of workers-to-dependents will fall to 2.4 workers in 2035 and 1.6 in 2050. Social security spending, health expenditures and government debt will spiral upward as large numbers of older Chinese depend on a comparatively small number of younger Chinese. No social security net, not enough family care and a pensions crisis will likely evolve into a humanitarian catastrophe with hundreds of millions of elderly Chinese left to care and support themselves.

What should China do? Today, some people think having children is only a personal matter and government need not do anything. Such a view is naïve. In reality, population sustainability and economic growth are two pillars of human civilization, and population plays a decisive role in economic growth.

Mencius, the “Second Sage” of Confucianism, believed that “population is the foundation of a country.” Adam Smith, the “father of economics,” also argued that “the most decisive mark of the prosperity of any country is the increase of the number of its inhabitants.” If the Chinese authorities do nothing, the Middle Kingdom will witness the collapse of its population, economy and civilization. 

China is in a bad spot. The country’s one-child policy has profoundly downsized people’s expectations about family size. To make matters worse, the individualist ethos of the West, and the rising cost of living in Chinese cities, has made marriage much less attractive to ordinary Chinese men and women. The number of first marriages in China decreased from 23.86 million in 2013 to 13.99 million in 2019. Dramatic declines in marriage and childbearing mean that a growing number of Chinese women and especially men are “bare branches” — navigating their entire lives without kin.

Now authorities are casting about for options. They introduced a new fertility policy this month, largely paralleling Japan’s policy response. Japan has taken measures to subsidize the cost of child care and education. Japan’s policy has indeed reduced parenting costs, but has not led to a dramatic increase in marriage and fertility in that country. Japan’s approach has proved expensive and inefficient, temporarily boosting the fertility rate from 1.26 in 2005 to 1.45 in 2015 and back down to 1.34 in 2020. China, which is “getting old before it gets rich,” does not even have the financial resources to fully follow Japan’s path.

A more promising possibility for China is religion — understood as a set of values that endow ordinary life with transcendent value. Religion is strongly linked to fertility in countries across the globe. By placing a high value on family life and according status to men and women who sacrifice their own desires for the needs of family members, faith tends to foster higher birth rates. 

In the Chinese context, a revival of Confucianism is probably more likely than the rise of Christianity, which has almost 100 million adherents in the Middle Kingdom. Confucianism has been to the East what Christianity has been to the West, nourishing populations and civilizations for more than two thousand years. Confucianism is a philosophy founded by Confucius (551-479 B.C.), which emphasizes the importance of family, marriage and social harmony. It advocates “large families and small government,” not marrying too late, and considers the dead and the unborn to be as much a part of civilization as the living. Classic Confucian texts teach “The great attribute of heaven and earth is the giving and maintaining life,” “Marriage is the beginning and end of the human civilization,” “Respect for the dead will greatly improve morality,” and “It is most unfilial to have no offspring.”

Confucianism prioritizes family over the individual, rejecting the dominant ethos now in the West. It also assumes family, not government, is primarily responsible for the care of the young and the old. And, above all, it welcomes children as gifts — part and parcel of the great chain that unites generations past and future.

To revive the culture of Confucianism, China would have to make dramatic changes in its society, educational system, public policies and economy. But absent a major culture shift like this, the country will end with the same demographic decline and economic stagnation that is now afflicting its neighbor to the east. 

Fuxian Yi is a senior scientist of OB/GYN at University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of “Big Country with an Empty Nest.” Brad Wilcox is a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.