China's Activist Shortage

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Protesters have taken to the streets of China’s cities in a rare show of political dissent

ФОТО: © unsplash.com

While the demonstrations are focused largely on the authorities’ zero-COVID policy, they have sparked speculation that a pro-democracy movement – and even a Taiwan-style political transition – could come next. But this is unlikely, not least because decades of strict family-planning policies have left China with too few young people to join the fight.

A country can be said to be having a «youth boom» when the proportion of people aged 15-29 exceeds 28%. As the most economically dynamic, politically passionate, and physically active members of society, people in this age cohort are particularly likely to challenge norms, participate in protests, and demand reform. So, when a country is experiencing a youth boom, it may also find itself on the path to political change – including, potentially, democratization.

That was the case in Taiwan and South Korea. As the share of young people increased – from 25% in each country in 1966 to a peak of 31% in the early 1980s – so did economic growth and pro-democratic fervor. Both economies became democracies in 1987, when their populations’ median age was 26. A youth boom also contributed to the eruption of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010, when the median age across the Arab world was just 20.

A similar trend once seemed to be unfolding in China. The share of young people in China’s population rose from 24% in 1966 to 28% in 1979, when the median age was 22. Growing political – though not democratic – fervor helped to fuel the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. Political engagement among young people also helped to drive the reform and opening up that Deng Xiaoping launched in 1978, and sparked some social unrest.

The government responded to that unrest by launching a three-year «strike hard against crime» campaign in 1983-86. But this did not temper the Chinese people’s increasingly pro-democratic zeal. In April 1989 – when the proportion of youth was at its peak of 31%, and the median age was 25 – student-led demonstrators occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing, with tens of thousands of Chinese hoisting a new symbol, the Goddess of Democracy, modeled after the Statue of Liberty, and calling for freedom of speech and an end to censorship. It took a bloody crackdown that June to crush the movement.

In Xinjiang province, the unrest came later. While the region was not experiencing a youth boom in 1989, the proportion of Uyghur youth exceeded 28% in 1996, and peaked at 32% in 2008. The next year, Xinjiang was roiled by the so-called Ürümqi Riots, which began as a peaceful student-led protest over the killing of two Uyghur factory workers but quickly descended into violence. The 2008 Lhasa riots in Tibet are also correlated with a youth boom.

Today, young people are again at the forefront of protests in China. But there are not so many of them anymore. The proportion of youth aged 15-29 in China stood at just 17% last year, when the median age was 42. And the share will only continue to shrink, likely dropping to 13% in 2040, when the median age is expected to reach 52.

It is difficult to achieve political transformation in a country with a median age over 40 and youth accounting for less than 20% of the population. The protest movement that emerged in Hong Kong in 2019 to defend the city’s democracy ended in failure, partly because, with a median age higher than 44, the territory has entered political «menopause». Only 16% of its population is aged 15-29.

Of course, repression also plays an important role in crushing such movements, and China’s rulers have not hesitated to suppress, censor, and subdue. But it is the declining youth population that is ultimately depleting society of the will to fight for democracy. What the Chinese authorities need to worry about is not the threat to regime security, but social rigidity, because there will not be enough young people to support benign reforms like the one in 1978.

The members of the one-child generation are overwhelmingly «little pinks», preferring to support the government, rather than pursue sociopolitical change. Their parents are not exactly primed to lead a revolution, either, and not only because older generations tend to prefer the status quo. With only one child to support them in retirement, they know that they will have to rely on the government for social security, health care, and the rest of their retirement safety net.

The one-child policy has led to a decline in China’s average household size from 4.4 people in 1982 to 3.4 in 2000 and 2.6 in 2020, leading to a reduction in families’ needs and, in turn, an increasingly powerful government. In 1983, China’s household disposable income accounted for 62% of GDP, but declined to 44% in 2021. (The global average is 63%.) Despite four decades of rapid economic growth, China does not have a large enough middle class. A fragmented, economically strained society may mount protests, but none that would be sustainable or large enough to challenge a powerful regime, let alone bring about a democratic transition. Because aging leads to economic slowdowns, China may never escape the middle-income trap or achieve a political transition.

To be sure, if household disposable income rises to 60-70% of GDP, China may have to pursue paradigm-shifting economic, political, and social reforms, as well as change its foreign and defense policies. This would produce a more Western-style political system and lead to improved relations with the United States.

But, despite its weaknesses, China’s political system is not in immediate danger, though maintaining its governance model is a formula for eventual demographic and economic collapse. Tibet’s political system survived for more than a thousand years after its population began to decline in the eighth century. Chinese authorities should feel politically secure enough to return to a more benign Confucian system, with the government working to restore population sustainability and socioeconomic vitality, though it is hardly clear that they will.

When China joined the World Trade Organization two decades ago, many anticipated that the country’s economic opening would inevitably lead to greater democratization. Instead, China increased censorship and repression, while becoming a producer of everything its people – and the rest of the world – could want. What China has not produced is enough Chinese people to secure its future and sustain progress toward democratic reform.

Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist in OB/GYN at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of Big Country with an Empty Nest (China Development Press, 2013).

© Project Syndicate 1995-2022 

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