East Asia in the demographic crosshairs

The West has long been obsessed with China. In the 19th century, the Middle Kingdom was dominated and debauched by Western trading companies, backed by Western militaries, pushing drugs into China. Remember the Opium Wars? Those uppity Chinese had the effrontery to destroy the British India Company’s opium and try to eradicate addiction. That was China’s century of humiliation.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. China has roared past the collective West in so many metrics. The global industrial base has shifted to Asia. Deadly fentanyl coming into the United States used to flow from China, but now they make the stuff in Mexico and ship it north.

For years, the Chinese economy has been significantly larger than that of the US in the benchmark that counts: purchasing power parity. That is the “measure of the price of specific goods… to compare the absolute purchasing power of the countries' currencies.”

Conventional wisdom is that as China rises, the US fades. On the surface, that seems to be the case: the US wallows in debt and endless wars while China makes friends through the Belt and Road Initiative, BRICS and other mechanisms.

But not so fast. Remember that old saw, “demography is destiny”? The future belongs to those who show up, and by every projection, there will be a lot fewer Chinese around in the coming decades.

China falling?

America’s pre-eminent imperial mouthpiece, Foreign Affairs, just posted Nicholas Eberstadt’s thought-provoking “East Asia’s Coming Population Collapse: And How It Will Reshape World Politics”. Has Mr Eberstadt derailed the mythos of long-term Asian dominance?

As of 2023, Japan[’s]… childbearing levels are over 40 percent below the replacement rate. China’s childbearing levels are almost 50 percent below the replacement rate; if that trend continues, each rising Chinese generation will be barely half as large as the one before it. Much the same is true for Taiwan.

South Korea’s 2023 birth level was an amazing 65 percent below the replacement rate — the lowest ever for a national population in peacetime. If it does not change, in two generations South Korea will have just 12 women of childbearing age for every 100 in the country today.

East Asia… is set to shrink by two percent between 2020 and 2035. Between 2035 and 2050, it will contract by another six percent — and thereafter by another seven percent for each successive decade (if current trends hold).

If projections hold, China’s working-age population will be more than 20 percent smaller in 2050 than in 2020. Japan’s and Taiwan’s will be about 30 percent smaller, and South Korea will be over 35 percent smaller.

Grim. The Asians know it. Eberstadt says that East Asia “is set on a course of decline that extends as far as the demographer’s eye can see.” Sadly, he is correct.

The Wisconsin professor

Though his field is obstetrics and gynecology, one of the most astute sinologists around is University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Yi Fuxian. Prof. Yi is as pro-Chinese as they come, but not a fan of China’s government. His book Big Country with an Empty Nest warns about China’s impending demographic implosion.


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Yi’s recent article, The geopolitical implications of China’s declining population”, spells it out:

In January, China officially acknowledged that its population began to decline last year—roughly nine years earlier than Chinese demographers and the United Nations had projected. The implications of this are hard to overstate. It means that all of China’s economic, foreign and defence policies are based on faulty demographic data.

This is huge. It sent the People’s Republic’s policy wonks back to the drawing board. Yi:

These faulty predictions don’t affect only China. They imply a geopolitical butterfly effect that could ultimately destroy the existing global order.

In 1980, [China’s] median age was 21, eight years younger than America’s, and from 1979 to 2011, its GDP grew at an average annual rate of 10%. But China’s prime-age labour force (15–59) began to shrink in 2012, and by 2015, GDP growth had decelerated to 7% before slowing further, to 3%, as of 2022.

By 2030, China’s median age will already be 5.5 years above that of the US, and by 2033, its old-age dependency ratio will begin to exceed America’s. Its GDP growth rate will begin to fall below America’s in 2031–35, at which point its per capita GDP will hardly have reached 30% of its rival’s — let alone the 50–75% predicted by Chinese official economists.

John Ibbitson, coauthor of Empty Planet, rang in earlier this year with “China’s looming decline could be a threat to the world”:

China faces the bleak prospect in which fewer people enter the work force each year than entered it the year before, even as the number of older people grows, along with their health care and pension needs. Such a combination is a surefire recipe for economic stagnation.

It could also lead to growing social unrest.

World peace could be threatened, not by China’s rise, but by China’s fall.

Excellent point. Like it or not, China is a force for global stability. Yes, they are pulling back from a prolonged period of overheated economic growth. But whatever happens, China will be a dominant global actor for decades to come.

It is China, more so than Russia, that has led the transition to a multipolar world. A precipitous decline in China’s industrial capacity could indeed imperil the currently tense though peaceful East Asian status quo.   


If there is a silver lining to the East Asian population implosion, it is that governments are now motivated to do something about it. Mercator readers are aware of family-friendly initiatives implemented throughout East Asia. China is embarking on “the world’s largest and most comprehensive fertility initiative ever.” While thus far not successful, it is early yet, and it would be folly to underestimate the Chinese.

Anti-China sentiment runs high in the West, fomented by regime media focused on restoring the 1990s fleeting US unipolar dominance. Thus China’s challenges are red meat for the Western press. Foreign Affairs let the cat out of the bag:

Because of the effects on China, East Asia’s loss promises to be Washington’s geopolitical gain.

That is zero-sum thinking, exactly what a good number of Western permanent regime mandarins would like to see. But again, not so fast. While China is losing population and grappling with a cooling economy, numbers alone do not reveal the complete picture.

China does not suffer nearly the degree of pernicious problems plaguing the US, such as the breakdown of social cohesion, domestic turmoil, skyrocketing social pathologies, never-ending wars and prolonged, unprecedented and unsustainable fiscal profligacy.

So, put a hold on the Western triumphalism. Some of us would be thankful simply to see our exhausted empire somehow become a republic once again.  

Perhaps a more accurate statement would be “East Asia’s loss… [could] be Washington’s geopolitical gain”, should the US be able to capitalise on China’s woes. That’s a big if.

That’s because “demography is destiny.”

How do you think East Asia's changing demography will shape our world? Discuss in the comments section below.

Louis T. March has a background in government, business, and philanthropy. A former talk show host, author, and public speaker, he is a dedicated student of history and genealogy. Louis lives with his family in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

Image credit: Pexels


Showing 4 reactions

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  • Marty Hayden
    commented 2024-05-16 03:29:47 +1000
    The CCP is accustomed to compelling their populace to do what is best for the state. They are, after all, communist. That doesn’t quite work though with procreation. My (humble) prediction is that, like all immoral governments, the CCP will eventually burn themselves out.
  • mrscracker
    From what I’ve read, the fentanyl products are made in Mexico but the ingredients still come from China.
  • Paul Bunyan
    commented 2024-05-14 14:11:13 +1000
    Pro-natalists only value people for their labor, and the number of children they can produce.

    They don’t see people as having any inherent worth or dignity worth respecting.
  • Louis T. March
    published this page in The Latest 2024-05-14 13:52:45 +1000