China’s rise has depended partly on a huge spurt in the number of workers as a percentage of the population. This surge has created a cheap, productive labor force for its factories, mines and construction crews.
Now the size of the work force is leveling off. Demographers say it will begin to shrink within just five years, albeit slowly at first.
Meanwhile, the ranks of the elderly are swelling so fast that by 2040, projections show that the median age of Chinese will be higher than that of Americans, but Chinese will enjoy just one-third of the per capita income, adjusted for the cost of living. Experts say that will make China the first major country to grow old before it is fully economically developed.
But as calls for a relaxation of the policy intensify, and official hints of looser restrictions increase, so do concerns that the one-child culture is now so ingrained among Chinese that the authorities may not be able to encourage more births even if they try.
These trends are not lost on the Chinese government. The wide range of investments that China is making all over the world, but especially in developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, can easily be viewed as the way that the country will pay for its aging population. It will not worry about having a new batch of its own babies. Rather, it will make money from other countries' batches of babies, not to mention other countries' non-human economic resources.
A growing body of research suggests that much of the decline in Chinese fertility over the past three decades is not a result of the one-child policy and its various permutations, but of the typical drop in birthrates that occurs as societies modernize.