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What in the World?

The scary population problem China, Korea and Japan all share

Mar 03, 2023

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When a country like China has a very low fertility rate, the population ages and healthcare costs soar, causing a serious strain on that country’s social and financial resources. Population decline also leads to a shrinking workforce, which leads to lower economic productivity and decreased innovation.

As Straight Arrow News contributor Peter Zeihan explains, China isn’t the only country with a dire demographic future. Other Northeast Asian countries like South Korea, Japan and even Taiwan will face long-term and, in some cases, irreversible consequences.

Excerpted from Peter’s Mar. 2 “Zeihan on Geopolitics” newsletter:

Today we’re talking about another region of the world competing for the title of “worst demographics” — and that, of course, is none other than Northeast Asia.

China is its own beast, and for those of you that have followed me for a while, you know where they stand. To summarize, yikes.

Japan is one of the few countries that has been able to look at this situation from a long-term view, allowing them to prepare for this (far) better than their neighbors.

South Korea is the poster child for all of the issues at hand, but if there’s a country that can somehow find a strategy to get itself out of this situation, it would be them. (And hopefully, they share it with the rest of us.)

Taiwan has been able to delay the demographic problems that these other countries are facing, but that doesn’t mean they get off scot-free. They just have some time to think about what’s coming.

I know that was a lot of doom and gloom, but at least you have Southeast Asia to look forward to.

Hey everyone, Peter Zeihan here, coming to you from a snowfield just above Littleton, Colorado. Today, we are going to continue with the demographic series and discuss East Asia. Now, East Asia combined with the Orthodox world are the most rapidly aging parts of the planet, but for significantly different reasons. 

So let’s start with China. Because that’s on everybody’s minds these days. China supposedly has 1.4 billion people, and it is the most rapidly aging workforce in recorded history, according to Chinese stats. But we now know that the Chinese have overestimated their population in the past by over 100 million people. And that’s a lot worse than it sounds. China as a modern entity was really not founded until after the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s, specifically, when Mao had his summit with Richard Nixon, and then following on the partnership between Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping, who’s Mao’s successor. 

At that point, concrete started getting laid down and high rises started going up. And that was the first time that the Chinese really had a meaningful record-keeping system in the 20th century. But where there are records, there is money and how you completed your records determines who got the money. So specifically, the first time in the intake system for the Chinese Communist Party where the government really became fully aware of you as a person is when you entered primary school, typically at age four to six. Well, for local governments, the number of kids you had in primary school determined your population and therefore your share of the national budget. 

So local government officials throughout the country had a vested interest in over-guessing or deliberately increasing and inflating the number of kids that they actually had. That means that the overestimation of numbers really didn’t begin until 1980. And that all of the 100 million missing people in China are aged 40 and under. So you’re talking about the most important part of the workforce. You’re talking about pretty much everyone who has kids, you’re talking about where most of the private consumption happens. And this is now probably a third less than the Chinese thought initially. 

But it’s that second piece, the childbearing years thing, that’s the real hit, because now there are not enough people in China aged 45 and under to even theoretically regenerate the population to a structure that would be more sustainable. 

So I’ve always believed that this was going to be the last decade of the Chinese system. It can happen faster. If you’ve been following my work, you know that when it comes to agriculture, and energy and finance and government, there are other reasons to believe that this is the end. But those, at least theoretically, could benefit from reforms or shifts in policy. 

There’s not a lot you can do about demographics when you no longer have enough people of childbearing age. So this is it for China, just a question of how they go out. Japan:  the picture isn’t nearly as dark. Now, Japan was a part of the second big batch of countries that started industrialization, shortly after the United States. But whereas the United States could industrialize its northeastern seaboard and still have huge tracts of land everywhere else for people to live on the farm or in small towns where it’s easier to have kids. In Japan, you were in a subsistence rice paddy, or you moved into a city with multifamily units. And so the birth rate collapsed there, almost on the same pace as it did in Germany. And it’s never hugely recovered. But the interesting thing about Japan is, you know, being an island nation helps, they are able to take the long view on a lot of things. And they have known they’ve been in a demographic pickle since the late 1970s. 

And so the Japanese have been adopting a lot of policies designed to help them get by with less labor and less consumption, as well as increase the birth rate. So if you want to have kids, Japan’s probably the best place in the world in terms of health care and child care. The government will go out of its way to make your life easier. In addition, you can get free housing if you’re willing to live not in one of the major cities, or near free housing. And the Japanese government has a national robot strategy to help with the workforce problems. And they have repositioned a lot of their industrial plants into countries with better demographic pictures in  order to keep the economy going. You add all of this up, and the fact that the Japanese have been working on this for over 30 years, and the Japanese have actually been able to tick up their birth rate a bit so that they are the highest in East Asia now, Northeast Asia anyway. It’s still terminal, it’s still in decline. This is still a problem, but they now have a higher birth rate and more of a trajectory than Taiwan or China or Korea. 

Let’s talk Korea. Korea is like a poster child for all the trends in question here. It didn’t start industrializing until after the Korean War in 1955. And then it went immediately to a series of megalopolises with Seoul now having half of the population of the country. There’s not a lot of green space. There’s not a lot of elbow room where people live, very difficult to have kids, and the rapid industrialization process means that this has all happened in two generations. And so Korea has a full inverted pyramid with more people in their 60s than their 50s, than their 40s than their 30s than their 20s than their teens and their children. 

And if it was any country, other than Korea, I would say that we’re going to see the end of it in the next 10 years. But the Koreans have a reputation for defined physics. And if they can find a strategy that works, hopefully, they will share it with the rest of the world. Otherwise, they are a pure export-led system now. And they simply don’t have enough people of youth to carry them into the next generation. 

All right, finally, there is Taiwan, Taiwan has by far the youngest demographics of the four, in part because they started industrializing immediately after World War II. And unlike the Koreans, or the Japanese, or the Chinese who began this process with a fairly strict dictatorship, society in Taiwan was always a little bit more open. And it was also the first of the four to really begin their democratic processes in full, which means that we didn’t really get this hyper-change and urbanization until you’re in about the 1970s. And because they had a kind of a generation from 1945 to 1975 to kind of slowly adapt, people were able to take the jobs and still vacation in the countryside, they still have connections to the world that was, and they haven’t aged nearly as quickly. Now, you get to the 1970s and it all turns inside out. And their birth rate is actually now lower than any of the others and they’re aging actually more rapidly, but from a much younger and later start. 

So Taiwan still has at least another 30 years before this gets really bad. Their bulge in their population structure isn’t in the 60s, like the Koreans, it’s in their late 40s, early 50s. So you know, we don’t hit that mass retirement bid for another 10 years. And that’s when they’re kind of in a situation a little bit like Japan, and aging a little bit faster, but they won’t hit actual mass retirement till the late 2040. So there’s still some time here, maybe not enough young people to regenerate things, but enough to slow it down a little bit. 

To that end, the Taiwanese, just like the Koreans, have a very capital-intensive, skilled worker intensive economic system, because you’ve got a lot of people aged 40 and up, who don’t have kids, who have degrees and are very good at high-tech, STEM-style work. And so these two countries, assuming they can get the geopolitics right, and that is not a minor concern, have the perfect workforce to basically take over tech manufacturing and tech development in any number of fields. Of course, they import a lot of their food and all the inputs for the food and all of their energy, and they’re completely dependent on countries beyond the horizon to keep their sea lanes safe, so there are plenty of problems. But at least for the Taiwanese, the demographic question is not the imminent bust right in front of them like it is for Korea, or China. All right, that’s it for me for now. I think our next one is going to be on Southeast Asia, which is one of the better stories. Until then.

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