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China’s Aging Population Is a Major Threat to Its Future

12 minute read

A passing typhoon has just tickled southern China’s Hainan Island, churning the sea into angry peaks. One glance is enough for Li An Xiao and Zhao Zhi Ping to cancel their customary 7 a.m. swim, the kind of unspoken agreement that comes with half a century of happy marriage.

Instead, they join dozens of other retirees performing calisthenics at the adjacent exercise park, where one silver-haired gent nonchalantly hangs upside down from the monkey bars.

Li was once a hydro-engineer in China’s arid northwestern province of Gansu. Today, the 85-year-old is enjoying a leisurely retirement with Zhao, 75, on the volcanic island that is Asia’s closest equivalent to Florida. Lunch at noon, a 3 p.m. dip in their apartment complex’s hot tub, perhaps a nap and, typhoon permitting, back to the beach for a sunset swim. “We love it here,” he says. “Just look at all the trees and flowers! The sea air means we’ve never felt healthier.”

An estimated 1.5 million retired snowbirds flock to Hainan from China’s frigid northern provinces every winter, and if current trends continue, the migratory pattern is set to expand rapidly. By 2050, 330 million Chinese will be over age 65. Good news perhaps for property owners in Hainan, but dire news for the prospects of the world’s second largest economy–and for those around the world who rely on it. “It’s the No. 1 economic problem for China going forward,” says Stuart Leckie, chairman of Stirling Finance Ltd., a Hong Kong–based pension-fund consulting firm that has advised the Chinese government.

If current trends continue, China’s population will peak at 1.44 billion in 2029 before entering “unstoppable” decline, according to a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences study released in January. The country will enter an “era of negative population growth,” the report says, warning that by 2065 numbers will return to the levels of the mid-1990s. Fewer people means less domestic consumption, and thus rapidly slowing economic growth. The ratio of young to old will be dramatically imbalanced by the rising ranks of the elderly, putting unprecedented weight on the ties that hold society together.

The scale of the problem is partly due to the legacy of the one-child policy: history’s biggest social-engineering experiment. Introduced in 1980 to reduce the number of hungry mouths to feed, the policy eventually began to act as a hitch on growth, prompting Beijing to permit parents to have two children from 2016. The policy now stands to be scrapped, with a draft civil code published in August 2018 omitting any reference to “family planning.”

But reforming the much maligned birth controls has so far done little to defuse China’s ticking demographic time bomb. After an 8% bump in 2016–mainly women who’d waited for years to have a second child–births then fell 3.5% the following year. The trend is being exacerbated by China’s entry into the “middle income trap,” where rapidly developing economies stagnate as incomes reach median level and the emerging middle class start having fewer babies. Just like in the West, many Chinese women are prioritizing careers and stable home life over raising children, especially as the costs of living and education soar.

It’s a pattern seen across the developing world. In just 20 years’ time, Africa stands to be the last remaining font of major population growth, as families in Europe, the Americas and across Asia have fewer children. The latest projections suggest the global population will peak at 9 billion around 2090 and then dip southward. The trend is particularly acute in East Asia; in South Korea, the birth rate dropped to a record peacetime low of 0.95 births per woman last year (2.1 births are required to maintain a population), as economic growth slowed. Japan’s current population of 127 million will shrink to 83 million by 2100, according to U.N. data, when over a third of its population will be over 65. Already, more adult diapers are sold in Japan than infant ones.

But China, whose extraordinary economic heft has been built on labor-intensive manufacturing and which has no social safety net to protect the aged, is uniquely ill-prepared for the societal changes this gray wave will bring. All signs suggest the country will get old before it gets rich–and the impact is already making itself felt.

Ma Ying, 30, says she and her husband would prefer to raise their daughter Sang Tianyi, 3, as an only child©Sim Chi Yin / Magnum Photos

Li and Zhao’s retirement on the teardrop-shaped island of Hainan isn’t lavish, but it is comfortable. The pair live in a one-bedroom apartment which has quadrupled in value since they bought it in 2007. Their combined monthly pensions–Zhao worked as an accountant in the same state-owned firm as Li–amount to 8,000 renminbi ($1,200). It’s enough to keep them happy and healthy.

They are among the lucky ones. Many seniors in China reach retirement age without having obtained the necessary capital to fund their pensions, health care and lifestyle. According to a 2013 study by Peking University, only 3% of respondents had a commercial pension and 0.2% a private occupational pension issued by a private employer. Instead, the cost of elderly care is borne by families and the state–effectively shunted to the next generation of workers. As in many Western countries, the shrinking population means fewer young taxpayers are available to prop up an older generation that is living for an unprecedentedly long time.

Until recently the aim was to keep birth rates down in China, but the state has performed a dramatic U-turn in anticipation of a graying population. Propaganda now exhorts couples to “have children for the country.” Women are vigorously discouraged to delay marriage for career, with the derisive label shengnu, or “leftover women,” given to unmarried women over 27. Abortions, once widely available, are beginning to be controlled. Last August, a proposal by two Nanjing University professors to have adults with fewer than two children pay into a “procreation fund” to subsidize larger families sparked a fierce backlash on social media.

It might seem mercenary, but in China children are most people’s retirement package: a nest egg expected to provide for parents in old age. Sang Tianyi started kindergarten at just 1 year and 8 months old. Now 3, she attends classes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. On weekends, she’s taken to one of Beijing’s leviathan shopping malls for a dizzying diet of extracurricular activities: swimming, painting, music, English. Her parents–a chef and a former bartender–estimate they have spent $22,000 on her upbringing so far. “We feel a lot of pressure,” Tianyi’s mother Ma Ying tells TIME in her two-bedroom apartment, crammed with learning toys and festooned with educational posters. “I hope she will be able to look after us when she gets older.”

The pressure to ensure that a child gets every opportunity means few want to divide resources by having another. Likewise, because of the one-child policy, each young Chinese faces supporting four grandparents, two parents–plus however many children they bear. Shanghai recently passed a law requiring children to visit parents in nursing homes. This oppressive, upside-down pyramid–known as “4-2-1” in China–is another reason Chinese are reluctant to add to their burden by having more kids.

Those who are already parents take pains to ensure their son or daughter marries by a certain age, and marries well. Every Sunday afternoon in Beijing’s Zhongshan Park, scores of parents gather to matchmake for single children, brandishing their vital statistics and academic achievements on posters. One woman discovers my Chinese colleague hails from the same western province as she does and strikes up an eager interrogation, spying a potential match for her daughter. But her face drops when she learns he works in media, which is far from a lucrative profession. “Do you have Beijing household registration?” she asks, referring to China’s preferential social security for urban residents. “Do you own property?” Two more negative responses and the woman has turned on her heels and vanished.

This kind of pressure has changed how young people approach relationships. Therese Hesketh, professor of global health at University College London, says her female colleagues and students in China often remark of suitors, “Oh, I really like him, but he’s too poor so I couldn’t possibly marry him.”

That’s if they marry at all. Registrations for marriage in China have declined annually since 2013; the number of divorces has climbed every year since 2006. A rising section of China’s middle class no longer see marriage as the only path to security, and are choosing to forgo a traditional family life and prioritize careers. “Marriage and children are becoming less significant in young people’s lives,” says Professor Gu Baochang, a demographer at Beijing’s Renmin University. “Their mind-set is totally different.”

Singles have begun to relish their freedom. On Nov. 11, China celebrates Singles’ Day–chosen as the date’s decimal form 11/11 looks like solitary figures–as a refractory remedy to Valentine’s Day to celebrate singledom and curb some of the commonly associated negativity. It’s now the biggest shopping day in the world, clocking up $30.8 billion in sales in 2018. Single Chinese women have also started to reclaim the term leftover as a mark of defiance.

Many men, by contrast, don’t have a choice. China has 34 million more men than women, because of a preference for male heirs and a history of selective abortions. By 2020, China will have 24 million single men of marrying age unable to find wives. Imagine the combined male populations of Texas and New York State were perpetually lonely, depressed and sexually unfulfilled. The consequences could be dramatic; multiple studies implicate gender imbalances in maladies including reduced consumption and real estate bubbles, and correlate with spikes in violent crime, spousal abuse, trafficking and prostitution.

Whole industries have been created to cater for these single males. Hordes of pretty young women livestream the unvarnished humdrum of their lives, earning six-figure salaries through online “gifts” from forlorn male fans. “China has a large population, and some people can’t find love in real life, so they turn to online streaming,” says Sun Xiaotang, 21, who earns up to $11,700 a month from her 50,000 followers, mainly by coquettishly playing musical instruments. “Streaming stars are like movie stars, but more reachable. They interact with fans and comfort lonely hearts to satisfy the need for company.”

The government response to a graying population may, in fact, reverse recent gains for young middle-class women in China, after years of gender discrimination. Although the highest echelons of the Chinese government are still exclusively male, women are outperforming men in education and increasingly in the workplace. Despite China’s gender imbalance and positive discrimination favoring male students, more women than men attend Chinese universities. Women are responsible for 41% of Chinese GDP–the highest proportion in the world. Some 7 in 10 Chinese mothers work. Eighty percent of all female self-made billionaires, globally, are Chinese.

But as China seeks to grow families to help care for the elderly, it also risks consigning girls of the next generation to predetermined caregiving roles, as traditional families consider daughters more doting and dutiful than sons toward ailing kin. Meanwhile, with limited resources and soaring school costs, sons in larger families will once again be prioritized for education. According to a survey by employment website 51job.com, three-quarters of companies felt less inclined to hire women following the move to the two-child policy. “This is a generation of women who will be spending a big chunk of their lives caring for others,” says Hesketh.

A normal day for Li An Xiao and his wife Zhao Zhi Ping includes a morning swim or park workout, and an afternoon whirlpool bath©Sim Chi Yin / Magnum Photos

As the gender gap widens, so will the gap between rich and poor–thanks to China’s past attempts to play with demographics. One legacy of the one-child policy is that each generation stands to inherit the wealth of four grandparents and two parents–the flip side of the “4-2-1” phenomenon. In affluent families, this can be a bumper inheritance. Tianyi’s parents Ma Ying and Liu Minwei are both only-child Beijing residents and now control six properties in the booming Chinese capital. Part of the reason they don’t want to have another child is to ensure Tianyi inherits everything herself. “Families fighting over inheritance is common in China,” says Liu. “We want to avoid that ugliness.”

The result is a picture of China’s future that bears little relation to its leaders’ dreams of global supremacy: an increasingly unequal society of oppressed women and lonely men, many burdened by the care of elderly parents and grandparents, and an economy crippled by unsustainable debts. China’s pension shortfall could top $130 billion by 2020, according to Beijing’s National Academy of Economic Strategy, and China’s debt burden is already estimated at three times its GDP. But beyond social engineering, the government is failing to make preparations for the gray wave to come; pension reform, for example, has been torpid. “Perhaps we must wait for the next Tiananmen Square–level crisis in China for the government to finally act,” Leckie says.

On Hainan, you don’t have to look far to find distress. Li Zuo Zhong lives about an hour’s drive inland from the carefree Li An Xiao. But the two men bear no relation by either blood or life’s lot. A Hainan native, Li Zuo Zhong thinks he is 65. Or maybe 64. Having never married–“There are no women in this village,” he laments–and with no children he sees little cause to remember. A stonecutter by trade, he built his two-room home himself. It is rimmed by a tidy mosaic wall of stacked flint, though has neither toilet nor running water. Instead, five plastic buckets collect rain from the roof.

Li’s prized possession is a 40-year-old bicycle made by storied Shanghai firm Forever. But he has no phone and his watch recently broke, meaning only the sun charts his days. With no family support, his sole income is $22 per month from the government. Were he to get ill? “Then I die,” he says grimly, lighting another Xiongshi cigarette. “Don’t be like me, have children,” Li says, grasping my arm, eyes suddenly brimming. “You don’t want to meet your end alone.”

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Write to Charlie Campbell at charlie.campbell@time.com