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July 28, 2008

The superpower that wasn’t

Is China really destined to be the world's next superpower? Not so fast, says Washington Post editor John Pomfret. When the Chinese government systematically began destroying the nation's children, he explains, it shot itself in the foot.

In the West, China is known as "the factory to the world," the land of unlimited labor where millions are eager to leave the hardscrabble countryside for a chance to tighten screws in microwaves or assemble Apple's latest gizmo. If the country is going to rise to superpowerdom, says conventional wisdom, it will do so on the back of its massive workforce.

But there's a hitch: China's demographics stink. No country is aging faster than the People's Republic, which is on track to become the first nation in the world to get old before it gets rich. Because of the Communist Party's notorious one-child-per-family policy, the average number of children born to a Chinese woman has dropped from 5.8 in the 1970s to 1.8 today -- below the rate of 2.1 that would keep the population stable. Meanwhile, life expectancy has shot up, from just 35 in 1949 to more than 73 today. Economists worry that as the working-age population shrinks, labor costs will rise, significantly eroding one of China's key competitive advantages.

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Mike Perry

Sigh, I wish I could believe that what John Pomfret is saying is true. But I'm just not sure. Demographics isn't destiny. Take Germany as an example.

Counting those in foreign lands, Germany had some 70 million people at the time it plunged the world into WWII. China has more than 1.2 billion. Problems or not, China is not Monaco. It has more than enough people to cause the world a lot of grief.

Like China, German life expectancy was growing rapidly. If I remember right, in the first decade of the twentieth century (ten years), life expectancy grew by more than ten years. Statistically, you were further from dying in 1910 than in 1900 (although much of the decline was in infant mortality).

Even more telling, at the time (1933) Hitler took power the German birthrate was disturbingly low, something the Nazis set about correcting. And Germany went to war just as their population of young adults was that decimated by children not conceived because father was away fighting in WWI or never born because father was killed in that war. Yet that birth dearth did not prevent the war.

The population controllers are wrong. War isn't necessarily caused by too many babies. Demographics is not destiny. History is driven by many factors. Birth and death rates are only two factors among many, and factors that can be spun many ways. A nation may go to war because it has a large and growing population needing to be fed. It may go to war because it has a declining and aging population and decides it must act now before its power declines.

Nor is all that foreign ownership the good news Pomfret seems to claim. Foreign owners could become China's Jews---the hated people who exploit and make war necessary. A government that took over the factories from those owners would be popular at home at the same time it was increasing tensions with other countries, something that could lead to war.

There's a final factor that bothers me most. Because of China's one-child policy, tens of millions of Chinese girls have been aborted or suffered and died from neglect after birth. This has tilted the population heavily toward young men. A militarized Chinese government, finding those men without the possibility of marrying a nuisance, just might elect to expend them in a profitable series of wars against weaker neighbors to acquire resources for their industry, underpopulated Siberia being the most likely target.

I'd like for John Pomfret to be right, but I fear that history is a bit more complex and multifaceted than he claims.

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