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A girl and two adults walk away from the camera by a shop with mannequins in the window.
Too few children means China needs to look outside the country for new blood. Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images

China needs immigrants

China is entering a severe demographic crisis.

For several centuries, the Asian nation has been the most populous country in the world. But it is now shrinking. In 2022, the country registered more deaths than births, and it will soon be surpassed by India in total population size – indeed, many demographers believe this has already occurred.

As a scholar who has studied China’s demography for almost 40 years, I know the likelihood is this falling population will lead to an economic slowdown, with a greater number of dependents and fewer workers to support them. Yet attempts to reverse the trend through policy that encourages couples to have more children have proved ineffective. China will need to turn to other measures to solve its population problem. In short, China needs immigrants.

More babies or more immigrants?

The scale of the demographic task facing policymakers in Beijing is vast.

In 2022, the Chinese government reported 10.41 million deaths in the country and 9.56 million births. This was the first time China has seen more annual deaths than births since the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1962 – during which a severe famine resulting from bad economic policies contributed to 30 million to 40 million more deaths than would have been expected.

If present trends continue, China is expected to lose more than a third of its 1.4 billion population. Some projections have the country dropping to a population of 800 million by the year 2100.

The impact of this change will be felt across Chinese society. The country is already aging. The median age in China is now 38 compared to 28 just two decades ago. In contrast, India today has a median age of 28. People of age 65 and over now comprise 14% of China’s population compared to 7% of India’s.

Once a nation’s population is in decline, there are only two ways to reverse the trend: encourage people to have more children or get people from outside the country to move in.

Many Chinese leaders believe that they can increase China’s population by changing the nation’s fertility policies. In 2015, the government abandoned the one-child policy, permitting all couples in China to have two children. In 2021, the two-child policy was abandoned in favor of a three-child policy. The hope was these changes would result in sizable increases in the national fertility rate, which now stands at 1.2 – well below the level of 2.1 children per woman of childbearing age that is needed to replace the population.

But these policy changes have not led to fertility increases in China, and there is little reason to think they will result in any dramatic uptick in the years ahead. This is because most of China’s fertility reduction, especially since the 1990s, has been voluntary and more a result of modernization than fertility control policies. Chinese couples are having fewer children due to the higher living costs and educational expenses involved in having more than one child.

Entering the ‘low fertility trap’

The total fertility rate in China might go up over the next decade by 0.1 or 0.2 at best, in my opinion. But demographers largely agree that it will never go up by 1.0 or 2.0 – the kind of increase needed if China is to reach the replacement level.

And then there is what demographers refer to as the “low fertility trap.” This hypothesis, advanced by demographers in the early 2000s, holds that once a country’s fertility rate drops below 1.5 or 1.4 – and China’s is now at 1.2 – it is very difficult to increase it by a significant amount. The argument goes that fertility declines to these low levels are largely the result of changes in living standards and increasing opportunities for women.

As a result, it is most unlikely that the three-child policy will have any influence at all on raising the fertility rate.

Which leaves immigration. China right now has few residents who were born in a foreign country – there are now only around 1 million foreign-born residents in China, or less than 0.1% of the population.

In fact, China has the smallest number of international migrants of any major country in the world. Compare its 0.1% of immigrants with near 14% in the U.S. and 18% in Germany. Even Japan and South Korea – which historically have not been high-immigration countries – have higher percentages of foreign-born population, 2% in Japan and 3% in South Korea.

It isn’t just the low numbers of immigrants that is a problem. China also faces the problem of growing numbers of its population moving to other countries, including the U.S. In 2017, for example, an estimated 10 million people moved from China to live and work in other countries.

Overcoming racial purity

China must change its immigration policies if it is to reverse its demographic trend.

Currently, foreign-born people cannot attain Chinese citizenship unless they are children of Chinese nationals. Also, foreigners are only allowed to purchase one piece of property in China, and it must be their residence.

But changing immigration policy will likely require a change in mindset.

In a recent story in The Economist, the reporter notes that Chinese “officials boast of a single Chinese bloodline dating back thousands of years.” And that taps into a seemingly deep-rooted belief in racial purity held by many leaders in the Chinese Communist Party. In 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Donald Trump, then America’s president: “We people are the original people, black hair, yellow skin, inherited onwards. We call ourselves the descendants of the dragon.”

The best way to maintain this racial purity, many in China believe, is to limit or prohibit migration into China.

But relaxing immigration policy will not only boost numbers, it will also offset any drop in productivity caused by an aging population. Immigrants are typically of prime working age and very productive; they also tend to have more babies than native-born residents.

The U.S. and many European countries have relied for decades on international migration to bolster their working-age population. For immigration to have any reasonable impacts in China, the numbers of people coming into China will need to increase tremendously in the next decade or so – to around 50 million, perhaps higher. Otherwise, in the coming decades, China’s demographic destiny will be one of population losses every year, with more deaths than births, and the country will soon have one of the oldest populations in the world.

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