Communist China Has Peaked

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GORDON G. CHANG, Author and Commentator

Beginning in the early 1980s, a demographic boom, the abandonment of Maoist economics, and an especially supportive international environment coincided to fuel China’s historic rise. Today, demographic, economic, and geopolitical trends are working against the Chinese nation. China, at least under communist rule, has reached its peak.

Let’s start with that relentless maker and breaker of civilizations: demography. Beijing reported that China’s population was 1.41 billion people at the end of last year, and that 2022 was the first year of population decline since 1961. China will continue to shrink. Projections issued by the U.N.’s World Population Prospects 2022 show a high variant estimate for 2100 of 1.15 billion people. The high variant, based on Beijing’s numbers, is unrealistic. The low variant—the most realistic estimate from all indications—is 487.93 billion. The U.N.’s low number has dropped precipitously. It was 684.05 million in the 2019 estimates.

Even the 2022 low variant might be too high. Demographers from Xian Jiaotong University in late 2021 estimated that China’s population could halve within 45 years. This projection assumes the country maintains a Total Fertility Rate—generally the average number of children per female reaching child-bearing age—of 1.3. China’s TFR, according to official sources, was 1.18 last year. Some demographers believe the TFR is as low as 0.9.

All of this means that. China at the end of this century will be about one-third as populous as it is now—the sharpest demographic decline in history in the absence of war or disease. And government efforts to arrest the decline like Beijing moving from a one-child policy in 2015 to a three-child policy in 2021 have not increased birth rates.

Societal factors suggest birth-promotion efforts will remain unsuccessful. According to a survey conducted by the Communist Youth League in 2021, 44 percent of urban Chinese women between the ages of 18 to 26 do not intend to get married. China’s demographic problems have now gone beyond a rejection of cultural imperatives to find husbands and bear children.

Pervasive pessimism and economic decline are also affecting the willingness of couples to start families. “Sorry, we are the last generation, thanks!” was a popular Chinese hashtag in May of last year. Now, this gloom, caused partly by a youth unemployment rate of 46.5 percent, is driving the “lying flat” movement—a total opt-out of society and child-rearing by young adults.

No matter how successful the Communist Party will be in other areas, the ongoing demographic collapse means China has peaked.

But there is other evidence, too. The Chinese economy, once the motor of spectacular rise, is now in severe distress. China boomed when Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong’s successor, allowed the liberalization of the state-controlled economic system in the three-decade reform era. But this relaxation was just a tactical retreat. Deng retained state control of the largest enterprises and banks, and now the Communist Party’s grip is preventing the change that must occur if the country is to escape the “middle-income trap.”

China will not escape that trap unless it embraces consumption and moves away from exports and state stimulus as the bases of growth, yet Xi Jinping will not empower consumers, because that requires weakening state institutions, especially the banks, which keep the Party in power.

Worse, Xi reveres Mao and is marching China back to Maoism. He is reinstituting totalitarian social controls, demanding absolute political obedience, and cutting foreign links. Closing China off from the world is an essential element of his plan to save the communist system.

Xi’s isolationism and xenophobia evoke policies from the earliest years of the People’s Republic and during the two millennia of imperial rule. Chinese rulers periodically avoided contact with other societies, as Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania once explained, “lest that lead to disorder, as globalization is doing in China today.” Every time Chinese leaders closed off China, economic and societal failure soon followed.

Without liberalization of the economy and society, Xi is killing the individual initiative that made China successful before. And without the perception of societal fairness and safeguards like the rule of law, it’s clear that the country has progressed as far as it can within its communist framework.

China’s current economic difficulties, therefore, are not cyclical. They are structural and will not be resolved as long as the Communist Party rules.

Third, China prospered because in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and other countries thought it was in their interest to integrate China’s Communist Party into the international system. As China grew stronger, however, the Party attacked that system and even began propagating imperial notions of worldwide Chinese rule. Beijing’s grossly irresponsible policies that spread COVID-19 beyond China’s borders have now made it impossible for governments in democracies to extend help to China. In the past, America and others supported Chinese communism at critical moments; now, popular opinion makes future rescues politically impossible.

As powerful as China is now, few think it can prevail against the coalition now arrayed against it.

The Chinese people are now telling us China’s glory days are over, risking their lives and leaving their country permanently. There has been an unprecedented surge in Chinese migrants entering the U.S. at its southern border. Customs and Border Protection reports that the number of apprehensions of migrants from China in the first five months of the current federal fiscal year was more than 1,000 percent—larger than the number during the comparable period last fiscal year.

If nothing else, the Chinese people are telling the world that China is failing, in the most powerful way possible.

(This article was first published in newsweek.com)

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