In 2006 I wrote an international bestseller about demography. Which is harder to do than you might think. But it was leavened with Dean Martin gags and whatnot. Nevertheless, it made some big-picture points:
Will China be the hyperpower of the 21st century? Answer: No. Its population will get old before it's got rich.
That's a cute line. I've been using it since the dawn of the millennium and I've been interested to watch it catch on. A few years back, I had the pleasure of hearing Henry Kissinger use it: It sounds so much more geopolitically persuasive in his gravelly voice. And the point is a serious one: Japan's demographic crisis began after they'd got rich, which is the better way to arrange things. In China, alas, the statistics are catching up with Steynian doom-mongering:
China's population shrank last year for the first time in 70 years, experts said, warning of a "demographic crisis" that puts pressure on the country's slowing economy...
The number of live births nationwide in 2018 fell by 2.5 million year-on-year, contrary to a predicted increase of 790,000 births, according to analysis by U.S.-based academic Yi Fuxian.
Yi is at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and he's been tracking just how old China's getting:
China's median age was 22 in 1980. By 2018, it was 40. That will rise to 46 in 2030 and 56 in 2050. In the US, the median age was 30 in 1980 and 38 in 2018. In 2030, it will be 40, and 44 in 2050. India, by comparison, had a median age of 20 in 1980 and 28 in 2018.
What happened between 1980 and 2018 to make a country age that fast? Well, for two generations Chinese mothers gave birth to boys and aborted all the girls. From page thirty of yours truly's America Alone:
The People's Republic's most distinctive structural flaw [is] the most gender-distorted demographic cohort in global history, the so-called guang gun â€“ 'bare branches': Since China introduced its 'one child' policy in 1978, the imbalance between the sexes has increased to the point where in today's generation there are 119 boys for every 100 girls. The pioneer generation of that male surplus are now adults. Unless China's planning on becoming the first gay superpower since Sparta, what's going to happen to those young men? As a general rule, large numbers of excitable lads who can't get any action are useful for manning the nuttier outposts of the jihad but not for much else.
The catastrophe of that policy was obvious when I wrote that passage, but it took the geniuses of the Politburo another decade to catch up to it. Not until three years ago did they issue the magisterial pronouncement that "couples will now be allowed to have two children".
Unfortunately, as Tucker Carlson noted in the American context the other night, it's easier for the state to demolish the family than to rebuild it. China wound up with an unintended Cultural Revolution: The cultural norm of having households with multiple children faded away so totally that, even when it's no longer illegal to have two kids, very few Chinese want to; they've gotten out of the habit. In Germany, by comparison, there are many, many childless couples, but you'll also run across the occasional parents who have two, three, or maybe even four kids, and thus keep the idea of family alive. When the state is powerful enough to insist that every couple has no more than one child, the notion of a big family doesn't even survive as a minority pastime. If no one's seen a two-child household for two generations, the rhythms of life shift - and are hard to shift back. Yi Fuxian again:
China, meanwhile, has been hit by two further blows: the one-child policy has changed Chinese childbearing attitudes and distorted moral values about life; and, the economy, social environment, education and almost everything else relates back to the one-child policy. Having just one child or no children has become the social norm in China.
Northeast China â€“ Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin provinces â€“ has a population of about 109 million, and its socio-educational level is several years ahead of the country average. The fertility rate in northeast China was only 0.9 in 2000 and 0.56 in 2015. This means that the next-generation population in this region is only a quarter the size of the last generation.
It was young China that closed the gap with middle-aged America. Against a still middle-aged America, can an old China retain its edge? Very unlikely. As I warned in America Alone:
The central fact of a new Dark Ages is this: it would be not a world in which the American superpower is succeeded by other powers but a world with no dominant powers at all. Today, lots of experts crank out analyses positing China as the unstoppable hegemon of the 21st century. Yet the real threat is not the strengths of your enemies but their weaknesses. China is a weak power: its demographic and other structural defects are already hobbling its long-term ambitions.
Weak powers behave more irrationally than strong ones. And a still developing nation with death-spiral demographics isn't going to be fun for its neighbors or the world.
Towards the end of America Alone, I speculate on which nation will be the first to take a flyer on the transhuman future. You can see its seeds already in Japan, with its robot nurses at the old folks' home and talking dolls for adults to serve as the children and grandchildren they never bothered having themselves. Those periodic wacky stories about lonely Tokyo millennials marrying their favorite manga character foreshadow a world where the middle-aged businessman, starting to slow down a bit and with intimations of his own mortality, starts to develop feelings for his robot housekeeper... A comparatively small number of comparatively wealthy Japanese will turn to robots and clones and whatever it takes.
But a comparatively large number of comparatively poor Chinese will face cruder, tougher choices. As we see in trade negotiations, China today is an aggressive and demanding power - and for very good reasons: It has to use its moment, because the moment is already passing.
And, if you're still seeking a great Twelfth Day of Christmas gift for a loved one that doesn't involve twelve drummers drumming on the back porch all night, there's always two on the aisle for Dennis Miller and Mark Steyn on stage together for the very first time. The tour kicks off next month in Reading, Pennsylvania and Syracuse, New York.