Comment: China’s economy is slowing down, its population is ageing. This could make it dangerous | Opinion columns
The Chinese economy is in trouble. The juggernaut that once seemed destined for world domination is slowing down – and not just in the short term.
The projected growth of China’s economy this year has slowed to around 3%, missing the government’s 5.5% target by an embarrassing margin.
After decades of runaway expansion, it would be the second-worst performance in more than 40 years. Only 2020, with its COVID-induced recession, has been worse.
Unemployment for young workers has climbed to 20%. Fuel prices are rising thanks to Russia’s war in Ukraine. The overbuilt housing industry is faltering. And President Xi Jinping’s draconian “COVID Zero” lockdowns have wreaked havoc, more recently in Chengdu, a very technological city (21 million inhabitants).
Remember when Americans feared that China would overtake the United States to claim the title of the world’s largest economy? That date has been pushed to 2033 or later, and a few economists suggest that might not happen at all.
Some of these problems may be short-term, driven by a slowing global economy and Xi’s refusal to import foreign COVID-19 vaccines.
But China also faces long-term challenges that won’t go away, starting with a precipitous population decline.
The United Nations predicts that China’s population will shrink by about 40% by the end of the century, from 1.4 billion to just about 800 million. Some demographers say the decline will be more pronounced; either way, India will soon take over as No.1.
The population decline stems from a low birth rate, which also means that China’s population is aging and its workforce is shrinking. By 2050, more than a quarter of the population will be over 65, projects Australia’s Lowy Institute. Lowy expects China’s growth rate to slow to an average of less than 3% over the next three decades.
China watchers agree on these grim predictions. They disagree, however, on what this means for the future of the country and for American politics.
Two foreign policy scholars, Hal Brands of Johns Hopkins and Michael Beckley of Tufts, have come up with a chilling thesis: China’s leaders know their power is about to wane, and that will make them more likely to take short-term risks. term — to invade Taiwan. , for example.
China is “losing faith that time is on its side,” they write in a recent book, “Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China.”
“China will be strongly encouraged to use force against its neighbors…even at the risk of war with the United States,” they warn. The “time of maximum danger,” they suggest, is this decade: the 2020s.
A chorus of other Chinese scholars disagree.
First, they note, there is no evidence that Xi or other leaders believe their power is waning; they continue to predict the rise of China and the decline of the West.
Even if China’s economy slows, it will continue to grow – still the second largest in the world.
“Countries can tangle with a lot of poor economic performance and still be a major force in international politics,” noted Princeton’s Aaron L. Friedberg, author of “Getting China Wrong.”
Besides, Xi and other Chinese leaders have a strategy to solve their economic challenge, he explained. “They see advances in technology as the key to solving all their problems,” he told me. “That’s how they plan to achieve higher productivity and reasonably high economic growth.”
“We need to do more…to slow down China’s technological development,” he said, starting with tighter controls on the export of American and Western technology to Beijing.
A rosier scenario, Friedberg and others noted, is that a slowing economy could prompt Chinese leaders to spend less on military force and more on improving the lives of the Chinese people.
“We shouldn’t assume that a weaker China would be aggressive,” said Bonnie S. Glaser of the German Marshall Fund. “China could withdraw into itself. Perhaps China is not as committed to unification with Taiwan as to internal stability.
So the 21st century may not be Chinese after all. China’s rise to global power is neither inevitable nor predestined.
But even an aging China with a slowly growing economy will be a strong commercial, technological and military competitor. At least until the end of Xi’s third term in 2027, its leaders will still be ambitious, still determined to absorb Taiwan, still determined to supplant the United States as the dominant power in Asia.
China’s challenge is changing shape, but it is not going away.