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The Long Reach of China’s Demographic Destiny

Although China is on the verge of escaping the dreaded "middle-income trap," it is aging fast and facing significant economic headwinds as a result. After underpinning the unbalanced and ultimately self-destructive economic relationship with the United States for decades, the one-child policy will continue to exact a toll.

MADISON, WISCONSIN – The deterioration in US-China relations is ultimately due to the bilateral trade imbalance and to US frustration with Chinese politics. Both can be traced back to China’s one-child policy, which was in place from 1980 to 2016.

When Western leaders welcomed China into the World Trade Organization in 2001, most assumed that they were creating the conditions for eventual democratization. A growing Chinese middle class, they assumed, would demand greater accountability from the government, ultimately creating so much pressure that the autocrats would step aside and allow for a democratic transition. This political fantasy underpinned the Sino-American relationship for decades.

But it wasn’t to be. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has been regressing on all fronts, reasserting more top-down control over the economy and tightening censorship and other forms of social and political control. It has been led down this path by the legacy of the one-child policy, which fundamentally reshaped the country’s demographics and economy.