Demographic dividends and China’s post reform economy

Type Conference Paper - XXV IUSSP general population conference. Tours, France
Title Demographic dividends and China’s post reform economy
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2005
During the last two and half decades, China has witnessed demographic change of
historic proportions. China has transformed itself from a "demographic transitional"
society, where reductions in mortality led to rapid population growth and subsequent
reductions in fertility led to a slower population growth, to a "post-transitional" society,
where life expectancy has reached new heights, fertility has declined to belowreplacement
level, and rapid population aging is on the horizon. In the not-too-distant
future -- in a matter of a few decades -- China’s population will start to shrink, an
unprecedented demographic turn in Chinese history in the absence of wars, epidemics,
and famines of massive scales. In this process, China will also lose its position as the
most populous country in the world.
Demographic changes in China are monumental not only because of the shifts in
these traditional demographic parameters: mortality, fertility, population growth rate,
and age structure. During its economic transitions of the last two and half decades,
China has also seen migration and urbanization processes that are unprecedented in
world history for their sheer magnitudes. Population redistribution is inextricably tied
to the broad social and economic transitions that China has undergone during the last
two and half decades. At the same time, it also shaped some important underlying
conditions, as opportunities and constraints, for China's economic transition.
Two and half decades ago, at the start of China's economic reform, the post-Mao
Chinese leadership established population control as one of its top policy priorities.
Having witnessed rapid population growth during the preceding decades, the post-Mao
leadership believed that population control was as a key measure for ensuring growth in
per capita income – its new political mandate. Discourse on population control led to
the framing of population as the root of all evils, shifting public attention to
“overpopulation” and away from political and social problems of the late socialist era.
This neo-Malthusian perspective (Lee and Wang 1999) led to the elevation of population
control, along with economic reform, as a “basic state policy” and to the implementation
of the draconian policy of one child per couple (Wang 2005).
Two and half decades later, following the success in China's transition to a
market economy and its phenomenal economic growth, public discourse about the
adverse development effects of China’s large population has faded from view. The
discussion, to the extent that it still exists, has shifted to environmental and natural
resources issues, subsumed under a new mantle of "sustainable development." The
demographic factor, curiously, is almost being “counted out” as far as its relationship
with economic development is concerned. Despite the change in discourse, the
economic success, the achievement of low fertility, a slower population growth, and a
rapidly aging population age structure, China’s population policy has remained largely
intact. The lack of a serious examination of China's demographic realities and its
population policy right now, just as the lack of a serious debate of the China's draconian
population control policy two and half decades ago, denies the Chinese public and its
policy makers the opportunity to understand fully the role demographic factors have
played in China economic transition in the past, and the role it will play in the future.
In this essay, we focus on three aspects of China's demographic change during
the course of China's economic reforms of the past quarter century. First, we review and
summarize major demographic changes in China during the last two and half decades.
Second, we consider whether China’s economy experienced a “demographic dividend"
that complemented other favorable development forces during the last quarter century.
We also consider how future economic prospects are likely to be influenced by
demographic factors. Third, we identify and highlight a number of social consequences
of China’s recent demographic changes.

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