What the U.S. Should Learn From China’s Population Decline
For the first time in more than 60 years, China’s population has declined. That last happened in 1961 when a devastating famine spurred by Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward killed tens of millions of citizens. This time, it’s the result of a decadeslong one-child policy, a rapidly aging population, and the simple fact that more people leave the country than migrate there.
That last point is a critical one, and it offers an important lesson as the U.S. navigates a dwindling population growth rate. For decades, the U.S. has been the world’s top destination for immigrants, while China is nearly dead-last when it comes to immigrants as a proportion of its population. As American politicians continue to focus on competition with China, they should recognize that free immigration is a critical way to maintain a talented workforce and avoid population issues like China now faces.
Like many other Western countries, the U.S. largely owes its current population growth to immigrants. About 86 percent of U.S. population growth last year was the result of immigration, according to the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. China attracts far fewer newcomers, partially due to its strict immigration policy. United Nations data indicate that China received just 200,000 immigrants between 2010 and 2020. “The United States, by contrast, added more than 6 million new immigrant residents,” writes Washington Post columnist Philip Bump. “China’s increase from immigration was about 0.01 percent of its total population; the United States’ was almost 2 percent.”
In recent years, China’s leaders have experimented with solutions to the impending population growth problem. They moved from a one-child policy to a two-child policy in 2016, then to a three-child policy in 2021, and then scrapped punishments for families who had more than three kids. But immigration reform has remained modest at best. Policies “relating to the facilitation of visas and residence permits, including long-term or permanent residence permits for specific high-level foreign talent and the establishment of immigration service centres” were expanded nationwide in August 2019, according to economists Frank Bickenbach and Wan-Hsin Liu, but these largely only benefit the most highly skilled migrants. “For most less skilled migrants, Chinese immigration policies have become rather more restrictive.”
Without a record of accepting newcomers, both attracting and retaining immigrants becomes difficult. From 2004 to 2016, just 10,000 people were granted permanent residency in China, with even lower naturalization numbers. “Foreign migrants in China are usually temporary sojourners, rather than long-term immigrants” for this reason, wrote Dutch researcher Tabitha Speelman in a 2020 article for The Diplomat.
How much does immigration matter for a nation that, even in decline, still has 1.41 billion people? In certain respects, quite a bit. It’s estimated that more than a quarter of the Chinese population will be over 60 by 2030, according to the Migration Policy Institute. This—coupled with projections that the Chinese population could fall by nearly 50 percent by 2100—will seve
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