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Will leveraging China’s massive workforce offset its declining population? Demographers explain

Despite appearing to have lost its long-held title of “most populous nation” to India, China has the potential to maintain its demographic advantages over its neighbour, but analysts say that will require China to better leverage its massive and still-growing pool of quality workers.

“Although India’s population size may surpass that of China, it will be challenging for India to be equipped with the same demographic resources that supported China’s rapid economic growth,” contends Li Long, a demographics researcher at Renmin University, who spoke during a seminar held by the China Population Association in early June.

“We should not overlook the advantages inherent in China’s enormous population, including the quality population, distribution advantage, [high] labour productivity and labour force participation,” he said.

The percentage of China’s working-age population and participation rates have always been higher than those of India during the same developmental stage, and India is unlikely to beat the historic records seen in China in the next 40 years, Li predicted.

If there is a lack of systematic progress in governance capacity in education, employment, healthcare and social equality, along with the inability to address the employment issue effectively, the enormous young population may not only fail to drive economic and social development but could also become a ‘population liability’ that hampers economic and social progress.”

Li Daokui, director of the Academic Centre for Chinese Economic Practice and Thinking at Tsinghua University, said in the same seminar that it is a common misunderstanding that a decrease in total population will set back demand and erode innovation power and economic growth.

“It’s not total population size that determines the long-term growth potential of China’s economy, but whether the ample human resources could be enhanced and fully taken advantage of,” he said.

As Chinese people are living longer and have more years of education, the nation’s decades-old working-age standards are no longer an accurate depiction of China’s pool of human resources.

China’s mandatory retirement age is 60 for men, 55 for female office workers and 50 for female blue-collar workers, while the country’s average life expectancy is 77.93.

Li estimates that the total size of China’s labour resources will continue to grow until 2040 and remain unswerving for another decade – and if fully tapped into, the pool could effectively offset some of the pressure from an increasingly ageing population.

China’s population declined by 850,000 last year, marking the first fall in six decades.

The number of newborns dropped below 10 million for the first time in modern history, intensifying concerns surrounding the nation’s deepening demographic crisis and sparking new rounds of discussions about how to encourage births.

China has been exhausting its means to encourage families to have children, with incentives offered at local government levels and in the private sector.

In the meantime, as population declines are hard to reverse, more demographers want China to make better use of its existing labour force, to raise the quality of goods to offset the decline in quantity.

The number of marriages in China has also plunged to the lowest level since the late 1970s, marking a decline of nine straight years. Last year’s 6.83 million newlyweds were almost half as many as in 2013, when a record high 13.47 million couples tied the knot, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Editor: Guo Lili 

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