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Finding future demographic balance

Updated: 2013-03-11 07:59
By Dan Steinbock (China Daily)

Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the government's restructuring plan released on Sunday will be the merger of the existing Health Ministry and the National Population and Family Planning Commission into a new National Health and Family Planning Commission, and the transfer of responsibility for population development strategy and population policy to the National Development and Reform Commission.

The transfer of responsibility for the population strategy to the National Development and Reform Commission indicates that the government will consider population policy on the basis of its impact on China's overall economy. But any significant change in policy should not be expected overnight. Senior officials reiterated at the two sessions that China will stick to its family planning policy.

However, this shift of perspective is vital because China's economic growth is becoming increasingly reliant on human capital.

There is a heated debate about whether the family planning policy is bringing China's demographic dividend to an end. Recently, the National Bureau of Statistics said that China's working-age population - people aged from 15 to 59 - registered a decline in 2012, dropping by 3.45 million to 937 million. This means that the proportion in the total population shrank by 0.6 percentage points to 69.2 percent. The bureau expects the trend to continue until 2030.

In fact, China's demographic dividend is not ending, but entering an era of relative decline.

Historically, all the countries that have successfully industrialized have benefited from their demographic dividend. This window of opportunity makes faster economic growth possible. However, the emergence of a demographic dividend is not automatic, it is predicated on effective policies and markets. In East Asia, the demographic dividend has contributed significantly to the expansion of the labor pool and economic growth. In much of the Middle East, demographic changes have generated huge "youth bulges" in the population, but without accompanying job opportunities there has been no demographic dividend.

In 1980, on the eve of economic reforms and opening-up, China's total population amounted to more than 980 million. By 2015, the total population is expected to be around 1.37 billion, and the working population about 920 million.

You only have to scratch the surface to see the underlying trends more clearly. In China, the population growth rate peaked at 2.8 percent in the mid-1960s. It halved to 1.4 percent in 1980, and it is expected to plunge to barely 0.4 percent in the next few years. More importantly, the median age in China was 22 in 1980; today it is almost 36.

There is nothing enduring about the demographic dividend.

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