“Will the demographic crisis in China push Xi Jinping to invade Taiwan?”

“Will the demographic crisis in China push Xi Jinping to invade Taiwan?”

FIGAROVOX/MAINTENANCE – In 2022, China’s population has officially declined for the first time. Pierre-Antoine Donnet, co-author of Le dossier chinoise, analyzes the geopolitical and economic consequences of China’s persistent birth deficit.

Pierre-Antoine Donnet, former editor-in-chief of Agence France-Presse, is the author of books on East Asia, including the great predator China (editions de l’Aube, August 2021). He is contributing to the book The Chinese file, portrait of a country on the edge of the Abyss, an anthology published by Editions du Cherche-Midi on October 20, 2022.

FIGAROVOX. – For the first time since the 1960s, China recorded a population decline in 2022. It actually lost 850,000 residents, while official Chinese estimates did not predict a decline until 2025 or even 2030.

Pierre-Antoine DONNET. – It really hadn’t happened in a long time. Between 1958 and 1962 China experienced the so-called “Great Leap Forward” which ended in total economic and demographic catastrophe. In all, about 300,000 Chinese died of starvation during this period, and there were horrific scenes of cannibalism. But since then the population has only grown.

Several factors can be identified for this population decline. This phenomenon is largely due to the one-child policy introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, and even though it was abolished in 2015, the society has kept the same model, the same codes. The effects of this policy are therefore lasting. There are also social reasons; many young women no longer want to be mothers, if only because raising a child in China is very expensive. Young people have a vision of their future that is radically different from Chinese traditions and customs.

Externally, the consequences are serious, and the goal of becoming the leading economic power ahead of the USA is becoming ever more remote.

Pierre Antoine Donnet

It should be noted that, according to many experts, China has been losing residents for several years, contrary to official statistics. For example, in 2019 there were significantly more deaths than births, but the Chinese government tried to hide this information. And this demographic decline comes on top of many other negative signals. There are demographic, economic, but also health problems. The abandonment of all measures of the zero Covid policy has led to an explosion of contamination and deaths. Here, too, the Chinese authorities are hiding the reality. On the satellite images we see endless queues in front of the submerged crematoria. The waiting time is about three weeks in some cities, it’s terrible.

What geopolitical consequences will this population decline have? Is this phenomenon likely to affect relations with its Indian rival, which is set to become the world’s most populous country in 2023?

I don’t think there are direct implications for China-India relations, but we can see other elements on the external plane. China risks losing many foreign investors because they rely on the presence of a large Chinese middle class to meet consumption needs. But this middle class is weakening due to the demographic crisis. As a result, the country could lose importance internationally.

From an economic perspective, will China be able to maintain its annual growth rate despite a persistent birth deficit? Is the “Chinese dream”, the project to become the leading economic power before the USA, endangered?

On an economic level, it is indeed a disaster, as the aging of China’s population will lead to a shortage of workers in companies and a consequent decline in industrial production. In fact, bad news has been piling up on the economic front for some time. Today, China’s National Bureau of Statistics released a report that GDP growth in 2022 was 3%. However, the target announced earlier in the year was 5.5%. The year 2022 had the worst results in several decades. Furthermore, we must not forget that this statistic comes from the Chinese government, some international institutions estimate that its growth is closer to 2.5% or 2.7%. At the national level, this is a disappointment, as such a slowdown in growth leads to unemployment, which currently stands at around 20% among young Chinese. But the consequences are also serious externally, and the goal of becoming the leading economic power ahead of the USA is becoming ever more remote. It is even questionable whether China will ever achieve this goal, because the slump in growth is likely to continue for a long time.

If Xi Jinping one day finds himself slipping out of power, his only desperate move might be to declare an attack on Taiwan to preserve his power.

Pierre Antoine Donnet

This demographic crisis is also putting pensions under pressure. Due to its high level of debt, China does not have the financial means to finance a real pension system. Today there is only a young system that is still being developed, while the number of people leaving the labor market and seeking help is constantly increasing due to the aging of the population. For this reason, the government has announced that it will postpone the retirement age in order to put the brakes on it, but this is causing real dissatisfaction.

Can this population decline affect Chinese expansion efforts, particularly towards Taiwan?

The decline in the birth rate, as well as the various crises that China is currently going through, are threatening President Xi Jinping’s power. Moving away from the zero-Covid policy he himself initiated constitutes a form of denial. Furthermore, he aimed to assert himself as China’s number one in all fields during the 20th Congress by eliminating all his opponents, especially within the communists party, which sparked some anger. It is therefore very clearly weakened today, and paradoxically, this weakening is a real concern in Taiwan. Because if Xi Jinping one day finds himself slipping from power, his only desperate gesture might be to incite heightened nationalism on the one hand and declare an attack on Taiwan in order to preserve his authority on the other. Taiwanese authorities are very well prepared for a possible attack, but most of all they fear such a desperate move.

However, I think that Vladimir Putin’s difficulties in invading Ukraine gave the Chinese authorities pause. And we can clearly see today that the conditions for an invasion of Taiwan are not met. Xi Jinping is more rational and thoughtful than Putin, who made this crazy gesture. If the attack were launched today, the Chinese would lose the war for a variety of reasons.

China joins Japan, Taiwan and South Korea among Asian nations with population loss. Can we speak more generally of a demographic crisis in Asia?

The problem of the aging population in Japan is very similar to the Chinese problem, in both cases it is extremely expensive to have children. But we have recently seen an increase in the birth rate in Japan, which has even become the highest in all of Asia. This is due to a real monitoring of the birth rate and to encouraging households to have more children thanks to monetary and fiscal subsidies. In China, too, the state has implemented a birth rate policy, but it is clearly insufficient, and the demographic imbalance between generations is so great that whatever it does, it will be difficult to remedy.

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