FRENCH PHILOSOPHER Auguste Comte probably tried to cram too much into his pithy but seductive maxim when he said that “demography is destiny.” Even so, demographic forces can be relentless in shaping future prospects of nations and therefore can offer powerful clues about national possibilities for future prosperity and geopolitical power.
It is well-known that China’s population is aging. Less well-known and rarely examined is what this demographic shift might mean for the future of Asia’s largest and most rapidly rising power. A graying China will not necessarily be a China of economic stagnation and social turmoil. But understood in the context of the country’s current path of development, China’s aging demographics could be the single most important factor preventing the “Asian century” from being a Chinese-dominated one.
Despite its economic dynamism, East Asia is aging rapidly. Most attention is focused on Japan, considered the “grandfather” of the region. But in terms of ramifications for the future power balance, much more attention should be paid to China. Currently it has a population of 1.35 billion, but this number is expected to begin shrinking slowly by around 2030.
More important is the ratio of working-age people to those over sixty-five, considered aging or formal retirees. In the 1980s, the proportion of the working-age population (fifteen to sixty-four years old) was more than 73 percent of the overall population. Currently at about 68 percent, the working-age population is expected to decline to about 65 percent in 2020 and 60 percent in 2035.