China’s worldwide competition with the United States regularly captivates global attention—as with Washington recently shooting down a Chinese spy balloon, ongoing tensions over Taiwan, Beijing’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, or the U.S. administration’s ban on the export of advanced semiconductor chips to China. But the country’s greatest challenge might now come from within—in its shrinking population. In January, Beijing announced that China’s population had dropped by about 850,000 from 2021 to 2022, with the total number now at 1.41 billion. Outside demographers have estimated for years that the number of people in the country had been declining, regardless of authorized statistics from the Chinese government. Now that it’s official, what are the implications?

Scott Rozelle is an American development economist, a researcher at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, and the director of the Institute’s Rural Education Action Program, who’s spent several months a year working in rural China over the past four decades. To Rozelle, what’s happening to the country’s population will inevitably bring a number of clear challenges, at home and abroad—not least in Beijing’s economic capacity to care for an aging generation with fewer children. But “the biggest problem China has that no one outside the country really knows about” is most directly confronting its younger generations—in the more remote areas where the majority of Chinese people live. And in time, Rozelle says, their problem will be China’s.

Eve Valentine: What do we really know about China’s declining population?

Scott Rozelle: We know it’s real and serious. Birth and fertility rates are falling fast—birth rates being births per thousand people; fertility rates, births per woman of childbearing age, which is a clearer indicator of what’s going on. And looking at the World Bank‘s numbers, the overall fertility rate in China is down from about 1.7 to about 1.3 in six years.

But then there’s the question of where it’s happening. Western press coverage tends to focus on the urban picture: Most urban families have one kid; many have none. Of course, this is a big part of the picture as a whole. But the majority of China’s population isn’t falling in the cities; it’s falling in rural areas.

More than 60 percent percent of babies in China are rural babies. And in rural China, the fertility rate is down to about 1.5 from about 2.5 just 10 years ago. My research group, the Rural Education Action Program out of Stanford, does a lot of work on rural families, and if you look at a typical sample of them, around 65 percent have two kids; 30 percent have one kid, without planning to have another; and around 5 percent have three kids or more—very few anymore.

Sean Nangle / The Signal

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