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baby with grandmother

Baby with grandmother (Photo credit: monsterboox on Flickr)

Street sweepers and garbage trucks are a common sight in any bustling urban center. Considering this fact, Chinese cities must be experiencing a sharp increase in street sweepers, as the latest census numbers indicate 49.7 percent of Chinese now live in urban environments. That’s a remarkable rise in urbanization since 2000, when only 36 percent of the Chinese population were city dwellers. Whats more, the most recent demographic studies reveal that China– once a barometer for the global issue of overpopulation– is experiencing a reduced birth rate so significant, it may well interfere with the nation’s prosperity and bring an end its long-standing one-child policy.

Sun Village - charity for the children of pris...

By 2050, no less than 25 percent of China’s population will be elderly  (Photo credit: Tom Spender on Flickr)

Low Birth Rates and Economic Development

Generally speaking, prosperity often leads to a decline in a nation’s birthrate. The highest birthrates are associated with the worlds poorest countries. As China continues to develop at lightning speed, the nation’s population growth is slowing down. Between 2000 and 2011, China’s population grew by 5.8 percent, from 1.27 billion to 1.34 billion. That’s quite a drop from statistics gathered in 2000, when the growth rate was 11.7 percent.

China’s fertility rate has fallen to less than 1.5 children per couple, putting the nation on par with Switzerland. A slower growth rate wouldn’t hurt China, but as the birthrate drops the population also continues to age. At present, only 16.6 percent of the Chinese population is aged 14 or younger, while 13.3 percent of the population are seniors over the age of 60. By 2050, no less than 25 percent of China’s population will be elderly.

A main concern among many analysts is that China’s economy will not be able to handle such a situation. As street sweepers and other workers  begint to retire from the workforce, the current fertility rate isn’t high enough to constitute an equal replacement. We only need to look to America and Japan to see what kinds of economic constraints an aging workforce can cause.

Funny Chinese Child Playing Boy

China has a history of favoring male children (Photo credit: on Flickr)

Gender Demographics

In addition to lower fertility rates and an aging population, China faces another challenge. The 2011 census reports 118.1 male births for every 100 girls, a situation that will inevitably cause a significant gender imbalance among the country’s young adults.

A number of factors have been suggested for the gender discrepancy. Culturally, China has a history of favoring male children. Its strict one-child policy restricts a couple’s chance to have a male child, and has been blamed for increased female infanticide and sex-selective abortions.

Reasoning aside, China’s next generation faces a potentially destabilizing gender discrepancy. The number of marriage-ready men will greatly outnumber women of a similar age category. Exactly how this imbalance will affect the nation is unclear, but most analysts assume it will have negative consequences.

Will the One-Child Policy Survive?

Changing demographics have led analysts to suggest China will relax its one-child policy in order to promote higher fertility rates. However, it’s questionable whether the current low birth rate results from government policies or increased prosperity. Some have suggested that single-child households have become the cultural norm in China, and that lifting the policy will have little immediate effect.