Just a few years after China scrapped the notorious one-child policy, demographers in that country are having a drastically different worry. A BBC article reported that the country’s birth rate, already below the replacement rate of 2.1, is projected to remain low for the foreseeable future. The article argues that the low birth rate is creating a “real sense of crisis,” as future population decline and aging lower the country’s economic growth potential. As a result, the article also notes, the Chinese government has been belatedly using subtle propaganda campaigns to encourage young couples to have more children.
The negative economic ramifications of low birth rates are certainly not a uniquely Chinese problem. From Japan and Italy to South Korea and Taiwan, governments are grappling with the prospect of profound structural issues that emerge from sustained low birth rates. In particular, without the dynamism and the energy provided by a large number of young people, it is feared that economies will lack both the brains and the brawn to keep living standards high.
While the Chinese government recognizes the economic concerns of a reduced pool of young people, from a sociopolitical point of view, the Communist Party of China (CPC) is hardly worse off from ruling over fewer youths. Simply said, having fewer young people means the decreased possibility of mass incidents opposing certain government policies, and such political benefits can very much outweigh the economic benefits of having more young people.
The ongoing protests against the extradition law in Hong Kong are a prime example of how young people can lead movements that challenge authority. Various analyses argue that the main drivers for both the extradition protests today and the Umbrella Movement of 2014 are the disillusionment and frustration of the city’s youth. Young Hongkongers’ conviction that the city, under increased interference from the CPC, is becoming a less free and vibrant place has become a source of anger and anxiety, ultimately driving them to become the main force behind large-scale protests. It is conceivable that if there were fewer young people in Hong Kong, the scale of the protests would be much smaller and the resulting political pressure on the CPC much weaker.
The sociopolitical risks of having a large youth population are just as strong on the Chinese mainland as in Hong Kong. Just as in Hong Kong today, the 1989 Tiananmen protests were led by students who opposed certain government policies. But even non-political causes can bring angry youth into the streets. As recently predicted by Bloomberg, a large number of young Chinese entering the job market will be frustrated by decreased employment opportunities stemming from a slowing economy. Highly educated university graduates expect economic opportunities commensurate with their educational investments. Leaving them un- or underemployed may provide ample reasons for espousing anti-government sentiments. With the slowing economy dependent on unachievable reforms and uncontrollable external factors, the CPC may be happier to see fewer young people who are in the position to complain about their pessimistic futures.
Of course, it would be wrong to dismiss the ability of older people also to actively engage in activities that the CPC finds not so politically palatable. The ongoing protests in Hong Kong have seen parents and older employees of many companies take to the streets alongside and in support of the young participants. And a review of recent protests in mainland China has shown elderly farmers, military veterans, and middle-class home-owning Nimbyists at the forefront of street protests. Their protests can be just as, if not more, thorny for local CPC leaders.
However, a key differentiation between disillusioned youth and these older protesters is the scale and sustained nature of the youths’ potential demands. Older protesters want specific things: Farmers want compensation for land, veterans want generous pensions, and Nimbyists want sources of pollution to be far from their homes. Such demands are much easier for the CPC, with strong influence over major companies, to meet under existing political frameworks.
However, what young people demand is much more comprehensive and structural. They demand deep economic and sociopolitical reforms that the CPC cannot easily deliver without threatening its existing model of retaining power and operating the Chinese political system. For the CPC to acquiesce to young people’s demands could put the party itself in a much more fragile state.
Hence, even as the CPC encourages citizens to have more babies, it can breathe a sigh of relief that the birth rate is staying low. As information flows become increasingly difficult to control, a new generation of tech-savvy youth, facing an ever-slowing economy, will be even more skeptical of the “Chinese model of development.” While a smaller pool of young people can only further weaken the economic aspect of the Chinese model, the CPC should relish the fact, with fewer young people, it can stave off popular displeasure with piecemeal compromises rather than being pressured to undertake deep structural changes that could lead to existential crises for the party.