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The Chinese Century Is Already Over

Chinese leaders have long staked their policies on the assumption of a rising East and declining West, but China is already past its prime. The gap between its declining demographic and economic strength and its expanding strategic ambitions now constitutes a major geopolitical risk.

MADISON, WISCONSIN – In January, China officially acknowledged that its population began to decline last year – roughly nine years earlier than Chinese demographers and the United Nations had projected. The implications of this are hard to overstate. It means that all of China’s economic, foreign, and defense policies are based on faulty demographic data.

For example, Chinese government economists have predicted that by 2049, China’s per capita GDP will have reached half or even three-quarters that of the United States, while its overall GDP will have grown to twice or even three times that of its rival. But these forecasts assumed that China’s population would be four times that of the US in 2049. The real figures tell a very different story. Assuming that China is lucky enough to stabilize its fertility rate at 1.1 children per woman, its population in 2049 will be just 2.9 times that of the US, and all its key indicators of demographic and economic vitality will be much worse.

These faulty predictions do not affect only China. They imply a geopolitical butterfly effect that could ultimately destroy the existing global order. Chinese authorities have been acting in accordance with their longstanding belief in a rising East and declining West. Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin believed that as long as Russia maintained stable relations with a rising China, the declining West would be powerless to hold him accountable for his aggression against Ukraine. And in its haste to abandon Afghanistan in order to focus its resources on China, the US may have unwittingly emboldened Putin further.