China is ageing gracefully, for now

Author: Editorial Board, ANU

China has a new Premier. Former Shanghai Party Secretary Li Qiang has taken the number two spot in China from Li Keqiang, who retired after two terms even as his boss, President Xi Jinping, is delaying his own departure. At a press conference, the new premier cautiously suggested that President Xi would not be the only one working longer than expected: ‘“careful studies” would be made about raising the retirement age for some, perhaps all, Chinese workers’.

The news that China’s population shrank this year for the first time since the 1950s on some reckonings presages an end to the country’s economic modernisation. Without a young and rapidly growing workforce, the impetus to economic growth and modernisation could peter out, some contend.

With an ageing population, a smaller proportion of the workforce has to cover for those not engaged in productive employment and, by simple arithmetic, that drags down average per capita output. A young and rapidly growing population has the potential at least to lift average per capita output because it more readily absorbs the new skills and knowledge to boost productivity or output per head. That’s what gives the old aphorism that China will grow old before it grows rich its ominous ring.

Those who worry about China’s rising power suggest that India is now the best hedging bet, with its much younger and rapidly growing population, although that will depend on whether there is sufficient investment in physical and human capital to stave off immiserising growth. In any case, India’s income is still less than one-fifth that of China. Even if China were to stop growing altogether and stagnate completely, and India were to grow at 7 to 8 per cent every year and double its income every decade, India won’t catch up with China until 2050.

The impact of China’s demographic transition on its economic modernisation is more complex and gradual than these accurate propositions, qualified by the assumptions on which they rest, suggest. Transition takes time. And its character will be qualified by both feasible policy responses and the behaviour of ordinary people to the new circumstances they face.

As Peter McDonald argues in this week’s lead article from the latest issue of East Asia Forum Quarterly, edited by Jocelyn Chey and Ryan Manuel, ‘[i]n the short to medium term, between now and 2040, China’s labour force will fall by only 8 per cent assuming constant age and gender labour force participation rates … because the size of the labour force will increase at older ages while falling at younger ages’.

As Premier Li Qiang somewhat cheekily hinted, the Chinese government has scope to lift older age labour participation rates. That can offset the projected fall in the labour force. In China, older people also have an incentive to continue working because of low pension coverage and few children to provide support, although they are overwhelmingly low-skilled.

A shift from low-skilled, labour-intensive production to higher value-added production based on advanced technologies, McDonald reminds us, is what’s necessary for transition from middle income to higher income status. China can no longer depend on the demographic dividend (a growing workforce, higher labour participation and higher employment) but needs higher labour productivity to drive growth. This is a transition that has been successfully navigated in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan and is already well under way in China, a country ‘which has almost half of the world’s industrial robots and is a manufacturer of electric vehicles, lithium-ion batteries and photovoltaic solar panels’.

The next two decades will be critical.

In the years leading up to 2040, ‘China’s highly productive young workers (who unusually earned roughly twice that of their 50 plus year old counterparts in 2014) will age and increase labour productivity across the age range of the labour force. Each new generation entering the labour force will be better educated than its predecessors. This should ensure healthy economic growth in China over this period’, says McDonald.

Demographic changes that are now underway will certainly have major impacts on the economy of China. But how these changes will all play out is unclear, McDonald points out — especially in the longer term where there is a high degree of uncertainty in population predictions — because there is no precedent of a population falling by such vast numbers (around 658 million between now and 2100). In the medium…

Read the rest of this article on East Asia Forum

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