Seeing is Believing

When I was merely middle-aged, to illustrate the relative size of China we used to say that 1 in 6 people was a Chinese peasant. We can’t say that now, for two reasons. First, these days we’d more likely say “a Chinese farmer” (even though 2/3 of China’s population is urban, so “a Chinese office or factory worker” would be more accurate if less catchy). Second, the number has changed to 1.4 in 8, which doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

All to say, it’s hard to keep up on several fronts. It’s even harder for me to grasp, after all my decades of thinking of China as the world’s population leader, that India is now the country with the most people. On the scale we’re talking about it’s just by a hair, mind you: India edged out China by a mere 295,631, or a city of about the same size as Saskatoon or Windsor. Pfft.

I think we’re supposed to take the precision of these estimates with a grain of salt. It’s an interesting choice, presenting a population estimate with a number that looks nothing like an estimate–1,428,627,663 in the case of India–as opposed, say, to 1.4 billion, but I’m sure they have their reasons.

Clicking on the country name shows the live count, presumably based on a model of births, deaths, and net migration, rather than on a legion of real-time census-takers in the field.

Ari! Meera just had twins.
Adjust your count for the block.

As I watched, India’s counter increased steadily–by 1 person every second or two–but China’s counter was broken, not increasing at all. Odd.

A few tens of seconds later I checked China again. Maybe the site just needed more time to load? I frowned. It looked mostly unchanged, of course, but . . . that last digit: the 3. Hadn’t it been a 4 the first time? As I frowned at China’s number, the last digit changed to a 2. Yikes! Their population was falling as I watched: according to the live counter, by 1 person every 45 seconds or so.

Population growth rates don’t have to seem high to have a big impact over time. When I clicked-in, India’s person-per-second-or-so population growth was already more than a million higher than the static number in the table. Likewise, slow-but-steady depopulation will catch our attention eventually. Opinions vary on the implications: some folks are practically apocalyptic; some see serious but manageable problems; some are quite cheery. Some, like the Government of the Netherlands, have websites (in English? yes) that talk about managing the effects of what they expect: an overall 10% drop in population by 2040.

Now, I’m sure I’d read something somewhere to the effect that China’s population has peaked, or heard it on the news. OK, I’m not sure I had, but I’m not sure I hadn’t. It seems very likely. After all, I’ve been hearing for years that Japan’s population is falling, so it’s not like the concept is new.

But it sure didn’t have the same impact as watching that population counter count down.


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14 Responses to Seeing is Believing

  1. Tom Watson says:

    I have read that the problem is that the birth rate has declined. In China, and in many other places in the world. We need 2.1 children per couple, but in many places the rate is only 1.1 to 1.4.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – I think that’s right. China also had a one-child policy for a long time, and the apparent result is that the male/female ratio is 104/100. So, even if they reverse the policy and encourage child-bearing, their population is now structured with fewer women than men. Canada’s male/female ratio is 985/1,000; in the US it’s 97/100.

  2. Judith Umbach says:

    The interesting thing about child-bearing is that many women don’t want to – for reasons of education, access to housing and food, general global understanding that fewer children usually thrive more, etc. I am sure there are studies that describe this better than I do. Let’s ascribe it to the fading of patriarchy – even in patriarchal dictatorships.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – Yes, the decrease in childbearing is, I think, consistent across all cultures and seems linked both to economic stability (which generates many other options for men and women) and (more recently) to reliable contraception. It comes to all of us, just on different timelines.

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    You may have heard that statistic about China’s declining population from me” Sharp Edges column, Sunday June 21. “Japan’s birth rate has dropped to 1.34. South Korea has the world’s lowest birthrate, at 0.78.”
    What bugs me about these statistics is that NO economists seem to be thinking about how we operate without endless growth. The Netherland’s site is realistic, and lists some consequences of declining population, but it says nothing about how the economy will have to adjust. Because you can’t go on forever counting on having more consumers and more taxpayers.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Aha. It was *you*. 🙂 As you say, the change away from a growth mindset will take some effort. Canada and the US still have the option of growing (or holding steady?) via immigration, but I’ve seen forecasts that indicate this won’t last forever either. Strange times ahead.

  4. barbara carlson says:

    Monday, July 31st, 2023
    Good News:
    Every age-related trend in China is going in the wrong direction. The nation’s median age, once well below the Western world’s, is now older than America’s and headed further north with every passing year. Deaths outnumbered births last year for the first time since 1961. The fertility rate, which normally must be at 2.1 children per adult woman just to maintain a steady population, has slipped to below 1.1 — a figure made worse by the fact that, unlike in virtually every other country on the planet, China doesn’t have a relatively even gender split in its adult population, the long-term result of male favoritism combined with the central government’s infamous one-child policy. Basic math dictates that tens of millions of these “extra” men will never start families of their own. To compound the problem even further, women in China have indicated lower interest in having children than ever before; more than two-thirds have expressed “low birth desire.”

    And this is a bad thing? There are far too many people on earth as it is to sustain resources and/or growth. And they’re getting dumber. I went to Google and saw this:
    “People also ask: How much people are on earth 2023? 8,045,311,447”
    (but who’s counting).

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – It’s possible for two things to be true – one, that overall the world would be better with fewer humans; and two, that getting there could be ugly. Many of our systems are built around a “perennial growth” assumption. It’s not clear that we’ll adapt gracefully (or even more-or-less effectively) to a basic change like this.

      • Barbara Carlson says:

        Humans do not react well to change. TV’s OCD detective, Adrian Monk, said, “I don’t mind change. I just don’t want to be around when it happens.”

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – 🙂 They created an amazing character in Mr. Monk. In most cases they managed to balance our amusement, irritation, and admiration.

  5. I am happy to see more recent reporting (yours) than some of the figures flitting about in the news. Barbara’s comment is the one that triggers some of those social questions that rise as a result of the change in statistical trends in birthrate. I recall reading that the number of single men in China who would like to be able to find a female mate is equivalent to the entire population of Great Britain. Those are the sorts of metaphors that strike home to me. Class barriers are being overturned and social customs are going out the window as a result of that demographic. If you factor in ecological issues and global warming, India’s not in an advantageous situation with its presently growing population, either.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Yes, the presentation of meaningful information (as opposed to context-free data) is an important skill. I don’t think our schooling ever covered it. I wonder if they do now . . .

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