What if India is most populous country?


Sometime soon, India will overtake China as the most populous country on Earth. The headlines we will see are entirely predictable. Commentators will take the opportunity to declare-many with a sense of glee-that China's strict population policy in the past decades have resulted in very low fertility rates which translated into slow population growth (and decline), as well as very rapid population aging.

These will be contrasted with a youthful, dynamic India characterized by continued growth. Even the imagery which will be deployed is predictable: a struggling, aged panda or dragon compared to a spritely Bengal tiger.

The Chinese government could address some of these issues not as a way to “fix” population aging and decline, but rather as a good policy which sees children and families as a public good

This demographically deterministic view of the world is, of course, deeply flawed. On the day it is declared that there is one more person in India than in China, nothing will really change. The relative geopolitical statuses of China and India will not markedly shift. India's GDP will not rocket ahead of China's.

Even as the gap between the total populations of India and China increases over the 21st century, demographic change alone will not shape the prospects of the two countries. Pakistan's population is 44 times that of Norway, and 28 times that of Switzerland. Yet one would hardly declare Pakistan to be 40 or 30 times more "powerful" than these two countries in terms of geopolitical or economic clout.

The comparison between a "young "India and an "old" China are also somewhat misleading. The fertility rate in India has almost certainly fallen below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. The number of 0-14 year olds in India has already started to decline, and the population aged 15-24 is forecast to start falling any time soon.

The population aged 65 or above in India is also forecast to rise by a factor of four over the next five decades. On the other hand, while China may well be aging more rapidly, its measures of human capital-education and health-are undoubtedly in a better state than those in India.

There is no doubt that, at the moment, the fertility rate in China is low. The expected rebounds from the relaxation of the strict population family planning policy have not come about. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this, pushing fertility rates to record lows. The biggest danger about India's population overtaking China's is that it is used as another justification to push women into marrying earlier and having more children.

Such policies are unlikely to work in terms of increasing fertility because they do not adequately address the reasons for postponing marriage and childbearing. They also are ineffective at tackling some of the core challenges relating to China's new demographic reality.

First, what population scientists call demographic momentum-the legacy of low fertility and mortality-ensures that population decline will continue unabated regardless. Any babies born today will not enter the labor market until the early 2040s, by which time many stressed institutions affected by population aging, such as pension funds, will be beyond repair.

Clearly, this means the most effective way of addressing this new demographic reality is to reform institutions to make them more sustainable and resilient to future changes. These changes should be done in a fair and equitable manner. Many argue for increasing the pension age. While this may temporarily improve some public finances, it would inevitably lead to an increase in inequality (as poorer workers will pay in much longer, and receive less in return because of shorter life expectancies).

China needs to think about aging in the same way as climate change. "Adapting "to the new reality by reforming institutions and supporting those in need today. "Mitigating" future challenges by supporting active/healthy aging and sustainable savings and income protection plans for retirement. Building a "resilient" society based on intergenerational support and respect. Many such components are already set out in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25).

Should we just forget about fertility, then? No. Rather than just encouraging people to have more children to act as a "quick fix", policymakers should explore the reasons why many in China are not able to have the number of children they want. These reasons often include the provision of quality, affordable healthcare; work culture; gender inequality; pregnancy discrimination; the cost of housing and education; the burden of responsibility for caring for parents (and in-laws).

The Chinese government could address some of these issues not as a way to "fix "population aging and decline, but rather as a good policy which sees children and families as a public good. Such interventions may well stabilize fertility rates and even see them increase as an unintended consequence.

No one likes to lose a crown. Psychologically, losing the title of the world's most populous country will undoubtedly be felt by many in China. However, there are many reasons why it should not be a cause for alarm; and there are many good policies both in place, and on the menu, which could be deployed to respond to the real challenges of China's new demographic reality.

The author is a professor of social science and public policy at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. 

The view don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.