Sometimes an offhand comment, routine social interaction, or other trivial occurrence reveals much about society. Occasionally such cultural cues are amplified through social media and gain widespread support. This happened recently in China.
While the Chinese government was implementing yet another Covid lockdown, one young lad vociferously protested being hauled off to a quarantine camp. To shame him into compliance, a police officer said that his resisting authority could be detrimental to his family for three generations. The guy fired back “We are the last generation, thank you.” The video went viral. The hashtag #thelastgeneration garnered millions of comments before the government censored it.
Some of those weighing in said the government’s crackdown showed that Chinese society was not worthy of another generation. One commenter remarked “In this country, to love your child is to never let him be born in the first place.” Another stated “This resonated deeply in me … I bought a T-shirt with ‘We are the last generation’ written on it.”
This comes on top of the Lying Flat (躺平, tǎng píng) and Let It Rot (摆烂, bǎi làn) craze captivating millions of Chinese youth. Here’s a quote from a MercatorNet posting earlier this year:
Suppression of lying flat only increased its appeal. Soon there appeared a more popular meme: let it rot, aka bai lan. The message? Forget about the rat race, buying a house, getting married or having children. Live not by a dysfunctional society’s expectations. Live for yourself.
The above anecdotes evince a dysfunctional society. Understanding that is key to understanding the unfolding geopolitical trends in Asia and elsewhere. The Middle Kingdom is plagued by deep-seated generational social strife which is fueling an intractable demographic crisis. Demographer Feng Yang summed it up:
I know that the figures released by the Chinese government on January 17, 2023 showing that for the first time in six decades, deaths in the previous year outnumbered births is no mere blip. While that previous year of shrinkage, 1961 – during the Great Leap Forward economic failure, in which an estimated 30 million people died of starvation – represented a deviation from the trend, 2022 is a pivot. It is the onset of what is likely to be a long-term decline. By the end of the century, the Chinese population is expected to shrink by 45 percent, according to the United Nations.
Bordering China on the south is the other Asian colossus, India. While relations have never been especially friendly between the two, that is changing. China and India together account for 36 percent of global population.
India’s population has just surpassed that of China.
India’s latest census revealed (for the first time) a below-replacement-level fertility rate of 2.0. China’s is just over half that, estimated at 1.05 (one of the world’s lowest).
China’s workforce declines by several million annually. Fewer workers should mean higher wages, recalibrating the economy from exports to servicing a domestic market. That is the transition to a fully developed economy. But the working age-to-dependency ratio is problematic: as of 2021, for every 100 people, 45 are required to support them. Economic growth is slowing. China’s most formidable challenge, now publicly acknowledged by the government, is the demographic crisis.
China is headed for a labor shortage. India’s labor force increases by millions each year. By 2050, India will have 1.1 billion working-age people, 25 percent more than China. Already, 20 percent of the world’s people below age 25 are in India and 47 percent of India’s population is younger than 25.
India’s economy is one of the fastest growing on the planet. Annual GDP growth outpaces China’s. India is on track to be the world’s third largest economy by 2028, behind only China and the US.
According to Ashutosh Sharma of Forrester Research:
India certainly has advantages in terms of demographics, in terms of geography, in terms of the infrastructure that exists, much of which has been built in the last few years.
But unlike China, the vast majority of India’s population lives in abject poverty. India’s existing infrastructure, though improving, does not begin to compare with that of China. In 2021 China’s GDP (US$17.73 trillion) dwarfed that of India ($3.176 trillion). But unlike China, India will have abundant cheap labor for decades to come.
The University of Wisconsin’s Yi Fuxian:
A lot of production capacity will be moved to India. There will be more and more made-in-India goods on the U.S. market. That, combined with India’s growing population and a shift away from China due to geopolitical reasons, may help the South Asian country chip away at China’s dominance as the world’s factory.
I believe that China’s population actually began to decline in 2018, and that it is even smaller today than the government claims – 1.28 billion, instead of 1.41 billion. In any case, it is clear that China’s recent social, economic, defense, and foreign policies, as well as US policy toward China, have been based on faulty demographic data.
Even if China manages to stabilize its fertility rate at the official level of 1.1, its population will drop to 1.08 billion in 2050. At that point, the median age in China will be 57 (up from 42 today), compared to 44 in the US (up from 39 today), and 39 in India (up from just 29 today). In 2100, China’s population will be only 440 million, compared to 1.53 billion in India.
With India surpassing China in population, its economy would not only surpass China’s but could even surpass that of the U.S. by the second half of the century and come on top in a new world order.
High-tech giant Apple has already shifted some production from China to India.
However, the conventional wisdom of a “shift away from China for political reasons” applies only to the collective West, a shrinking portion of the global economy. Today we are in the midst of a monumental geopolitical upheaval. The West, aka the American Empire, increasingly views China with hostility. The rest of the world does not. US Air Force General Mike Minihan recently predicted that the US could be at war with China by 2025: “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.” High ranking active-duty military don’t speak off script. It appears that the American people are being prepped for a confrontation with China. Note the days long media frenzy over the much-hyped “spy balloon.”
Meanwhile the Ukraine war has strengthened Russia-China relations. Blanket Western sanctions on Russia have backfired, especially in Europe. This has boosted alternative international payment mechanisms and is accelerating dedollarization. We are headed for a global monetary reset. Things could get ugly as they often do with global power shifts. Make no mistake – China and India are major players in all this.
While China and India have not been especially friendly (border disputes and other disagreements flare from time to time), these pale in comparison to their larger mutual interests. Foreign investment in both countries is surging. Recent American sanctions enabling the seizure of dollar-denominated assets anywhere have engendered increased cooperation among the non-Western powers. Russia is brokering better Sino-Indian relations. Both countries are huge customers of Russian energy and raw materials. China has the cash, technology, and manufacturing base. India has the labor and economy suitable for a superpower partner. Rupees-to-rubles trade is up. The petroyuan is gaining ground. BRICS is expanding and the Belt and Road Initiative is facilitating commerce throughout Eurasia and elsewhere.
In India, religious strife is on the rise. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is fervently pro-Hindu, and the country’s well over 200 million Muslims and the small Christian minority are increasingly marginalized. There is also widespread poverty and poor infrastructure.
But unlike China, there is no debilitating generational divide and there is no mass anti-natalist movement among India’s youth. That alone makes a huge difference.
India will benefit tremendously from both China’s challenges and cooperation in the changing world order, which is fast becoming one of the West against the rest.
Will the subcontinental colossus eventually become a driving force of the world economy? Time will tell. But for the next several decades, at least, there will be enough Indians around to make it possible.