China just came out with its final – for now – 2021 population growth figures, and they strengthen the case against the People’s Republic becoming rich and powerful enough to dominate the world before too long. Indeed, combined with stunning recent figures on Chinese performance on a key measure of prosperity, they add to the evidence that far from becoming a “Chinese Century,” the 21st century is likeliest to become one of Chinese stagnation and even relative decline.
The demographic figures show that China’s population during 2021 increased by only about 480,000 – or 0.03 percent. For comparison’s sake, the U.S. population last year rose by about 392,600 – or 0.10 percent. That rate is widely viewed as alarmingly slow (see, e.g., here), but it’s triple that of China’s. Moreover, China’s population growth has been historically sluggish for the last decade. Its last decennial census revealed an increase of only 72 million between 2010 and 2020 – the smallest rise since the first such headcount in 1953.
Even worse, these developments are entirely consistent with recent authoritative predictions that, if not somehow reversed, China will experience a population bust for the rest of this century that will be nothing less than mind-blowing. Specifically, by 2100, it will fall by fully one half – and be just twice as large as the projected U.S. population (as opposed to being 4.24 times bigger today).
These population trends debunk the Chinese Century forecasts because of a related economic trend – China’s growth in per capita gross domestic product (GDP). This statistic gauges how much total economic output (GDP) a country is generating divided by each one of its inhabitants. If a country’s per capita GDP is growing, then its economy is growing faster than its population, and therefore the average individal is generating more wealth every year, and that therefore there’s more wealth (in theory) to spread among the population each year. If per capita GDP is shrinking, then there’s less wealth being created per person and therefore less available to share.
China’s per capita GDP isn’t shrinking. But according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), it hasn’t been growing very rapidly, either, for the past forty years despite the country’s very fast overall growth. More important, when it comes to those Chinese Century forecasts, it’s been growing much more slowly than U.S. per capita GDP; the gap has widened greatly; and it’s forecast to continue widening for the next few years at least. And of course, China’s wealth per head as of 2020 was less than one-sixth of America’s to begin with.
If this forecast is correct, and China’s population and per capita GDP keep falling relative to their U.S. counterparts, the strategic and economic implications, as I’ve discussed, are game-changing. They mean that even measured by total size of economy, far from turning in China’s favor, or even narrowing, the U.S.-China gap would double in America’s favor. So the United States would have many more resources to devote to its millitary, or to improving its technological competitiveness, than its chief rival. (Whether Americans wind up spending this money wisely is another question altogether).
Economically, the implications mean that the United States would become a much more promising growth market than China, both in terms of the total sizes of their GDP and in terms of how much wealth the average Chinese and average American could actually spend.
Interestingly, moreover, these trends played out between 2020 and 2021 alone. On a quarter-to-quarter basis, the United States has been growing faster than China. And America slightly widened its per capita GDP lead.
China of course remains a huge market in absolute terms, and its massive military buildup and impressive technological progress will enable it to keep mounting major and worsening threats to American security, ranging from an attack on global semiconductor manufacturing kingpin Taiwan to the cyberhacking of U.S. government agencies and private businesses (along with their customers). Nor is there any guarantee that Americans will avoid catastrophic policy mistakes or other problems.
But it’s hard to escape the notion that much of America’s China policy in recent decades (the Trump years excepted) was heavily influenced by defeatist attitudes on the part of its leaders (that is, those that weren’t in effect on Beijing’s payroll in one way or another). China’s latest Census results make clear that such gloom, which produced so many decisions that enriched and strengthened China because “There was no alternative,” is getting ever harder to justify.