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Clara Ferreira Marques

An Older China May Be More Unequal, Too

The population is at or near its peak. Absent different policies, women and rural citizens look likely to bear the burden of decline.

The consequences of a population crunch won’t fall evenly.

The consequences of a population crunch won’t fall evenly.

Photographer: AFP/Getty

“Women hold up half the sky,” Chairman Mao Zedong said. As China’s male-skewed population rapidly shrinks and ages, it’s likely to be the heavier half that falls to the fairer sex. Having fewer, older people doesn’t automatically spell disaster. Yet without significant pension, health care and other reforms, already troubling inequities between social classes, regions and genders will increase. That’s bad news for a government that values social stability above all else.

With the results of its once-in-a-decade 2020 census due,  Beijing has brushed off suggestions that the figures will show a decline. The statistics bureau said numbers grew, while the state-run Global Times quoted demographers predicting population would peak as early as 2022 before starting to decline — still far sooner than earlier estimates. In reality, a few years matter little. The direction of travel has been clear for some time, with previously unlimited rural labor beginning to dry up. Last year, there were nearly 1.8 million fewer registered newborns, an almost 15% drop compared to 2019.