Scholars' views

High-quality Population Development is Cornerstone of Modernization

Population is a fundamental, overarching, long-term, and strategic element for a country to grow. A demographic change is associated with all combined population factors such as quantity, structure, quality, migration, and distribution, which will pose a comprehensive, long-term and profound impact to the economic and social system. At the first meeting of the Central Commission for Financial and Economic Affairs (CCFEA) under the 20th CPC Central Committee on May 5, officials stressed that the efforts should be made to accelerate the building of the country's modern industrial system and advancing Chinese modernization with support from the high-quality development of the population. In terms of the population, special attention should be paid to population quality, size, and human resources. Efforts should be made to improve the overall quality of the population, maintain an appropriate birthrate and population size, and speed up the development of modern human resources with good quality, sufficient quantity, optimized structure and reasonable distribution. This is a scientific decision made by combining population theory with the specific changes in China's population conditions, which helps us perfect the strategy for population development in the new era, and understand, adapt to and guide the new normal of population development.

High-quality Population Development is Expected to Become the Core of China's Future Population Development Strategy

The year 2022 marks the watershed moment of positive-to-negative demographic changes in China. The total population by the end of the year was 1.41175 billion, a net decrease of 850 thousand over the end of the previous year, with the birth rate of 6.77 ‰, the mortality rate 7.37 ‰, and the natural population growth rate -0.60 ‰. All these numbers signified the end of positive population growth in the process of normal population development and the emergence of a new era of declining population, and would inevitably bring both new challenges and opportunities for economic and social development.

(1) The population size has reached its peak. China's population growth fluctuated between a positive and negative growth in 2021 and 2022, recording a population peak of 1.41 to 1.42 billion. According to the prediction in the United Nations' World Population Prospects 2022 (the same below), if the fertility rate level could rebound to 1.31 in 2035 and 1.39 in 2050, from 1.28 in 2030 (equivalent to the average number of children per woman), the total population of China would reach 1.40 billion in 2035 and 1.31 billion in 2050, with a decrease of 7.1% compared to the population of 2022.

(2) Demographic aging is furthering. Demographic aging represents a change covering all age groups, and everyone is involved. Firstly, the population of children and adolescents aged 0-14 decreased from a peak of 340 million in 1993 to 240 million in 2022. The children are currently at the primary school age, but they will part of the population of middle and higher school age, childbirth population and labor force. Secondly, the working population aged between 16 and 59 reached a peak of 925 million in 2011, keeping a continuous decrease for more than a decade, and recorded 870 million in 2022. Thirdly, China stepped into an aging society in 2000, 130 million people of the total population are the elderly peopled aged 60 and above with the aging level of 10.0%. In 2022, such numbers doubled to 280 million and 19.8%, respectively.

(3) China is witnessing greater geographic mobility, and shifting towards urbanization from urban-dominated layout. Population mobility is essentially the spatial redistribution of human resources and manpower. Firstly, the rural population continues to shrink, as opposed to the rapidly growing urban residents. In 1995, the rural population reached a peak of 860 million, but now it declined to 490 million, down by 43.0%; and the urban population rose from 350 million to 920 million, up by 162.9%, with the level of urbanization of 65.2%. Under the established goal of continuing to improve urbanization, the rural population will continue to shrink and the urban population will continue to increase, which is the trend. Secondly, population mobility continues to increase, but will eventually calm down. The floating population in 2021 was 384 million, 57.4 times as much as that of 1982 (6.57 million) not long after the start of reform and opening up. The proportion of floating population to the total population reached 27.2%, which means that one quarter of Chinese people are moving to economically developed regions, including urban areas, or eastern and southern cities. On the one hand, the floating population will, to some extent, offset the declining fertility rate of the destination, alleviate the interregional imbalance between population and economic development, and leverage the advantages of spatial mobility in China as a populous country. On the other hand, labor factors flow freely, so “Rural China” with labor factors flowing a scattered and less active manner is transforming to “Urban China” with low and scattered factors to an Urban China with highly flowing and concentrated factors, which is conducive to the intensive use of means of production and the prosperity of production and consumption markets. As a result, human resources are more effectively allocated, human capital is redistributed spatially, and coordinated regional development is advanced. However, 13 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions in China have seen their natural population growth changed from positive to negative. In the long run, the area of negative population growth is expanding. If the fertility rate and population size in almost all regions show a decline, population mobility will no longer be a wise solution. It will only be a matter of time before the negative population growth occurs across the country.

(4) The sound economic development in the future is highly dependent on the increasingly abundant human capital. Simply put, human capital is the sum of quality factors possessed by an individual such as knowledge, skills, and physical fitness. The core of gaining human capital is to improve the quality of the population and increase human investment in health and education. Since the reform and opening up, tremendous changes have taken place in the population quality in the course of creating China's economic miracle. Firstly, Chinese people’s health has been significantly improved. The average life expectancy in China rose to 78.2 years in 2021, and the core indicators for measuring a country's health status, such as infant mortality rate, neonatal mortality rate, mortality rate of children under 5 years old, and maternal mortality rate, are as low as 5.0 ‰, 3.1 ‰, 7.1 ‰, and 16.1/100,000, respectively, which are all higher than the average of middle-and high-income countries. Secondly, the education has improved rapidly. China has established the world's largest higher education system. The gross enrollment ratio of general higher education reached 59.6% in 2022, and the penetration of higher education was further consolidated and improved; there were 46.55 million students studying in universities and colleges, 240 million citizens have received higher education across the country, accounting for 17.0% of the total population, which means that one out of fewer than 6 people in the country has the background of higher education; the annual enrolled students and graduates of higher education institutions both exceeded 10 million people; the people aged 15 and above have received education for 9.9 years or more on average, and the new workforce received 14 years of education on average, equivalent to a sophomore of universities; and the quality structure of the labor force has undergone significant changes, and the quality of the entire nation has steadily improved.

In summary, considering the basic national conditions of the population where negative population growth and population aging has occurred simultaneously till the middle of this century, the advantages of population size and structure are gradually weakening, and population migration will eventually tend to calm down, except the comprehensive quality of the population has been improved and will keep improving rapidly. The labor support to economic and social development is being represented by advantages in human capital and talents, rather than human resources in the past. This meeting underlined efforts on advancing Chinese modernization with support from the high-quality development of the population, which implied that China is now putting more emphasis on capital population opportunities and human capital dividends based on population quality improvement, instead of the long-sought population size and demographic structure advantages since the reform and opening up. The high-quality population development will undoubtedly become the core orientation of China's population development strategy in the years to come, and help the country respond to promote the high-quality social and economic development and adhere to Chinese path to modernization.

Building Healthy China and an Education Power are Leading Projects for High-Quality Population Development

The high-quality population development contains a lot of aspects, and the core issue is to continuously improve the overall quality of the population, and to transform the advantages of population quality improvement into the driving force for high-quality economic development.

Health is a carrier of knowledge and skills, and also a key measure for the population quality. 'Healthy China' is a national strategy. To construct a pattern of high-quality population development, we must strengthen health security, enhance people's health and well-being, and continuously improve the health of the entire population. We should deepen the reform of the medical and health system, strengthen health service security, intervene in health influencing factors, protect full-life-cycle health and prevent and control major diseases, all of which are the main measures to popularize health knowledge, enhance health literacy, and improve health behavior.

Education is a leading project to improve the overall quality of the population and a source of cultivating and accumulating human capital. We should implement the education-first strategy, plan high-quality population development from the perspective of the entire life cycle by starting with public-interest childcare services and preschool education, expand the coverage of compulsory education, promote balanced allocation of educational resources, strengthen the supply level of premium educational resources, and significantly ease the burden of raising a family. Higher education is a cradle for cultivating high-level talents. To deepen the reform of higher education, it is necessary to: firstly, maintain the scale of higher education. Although China’s annual enrollment and graduation of higher education have created a historic breakthrough by both exceeding ten million and higher institutions are not confined to elite groups, but ordinary people, we should push forward reforms in training and schooling models, as well as management and support mechanisms in higher education, in order to provide support for high-quality population development; secondly, we should improve the quality of higher education, equip higher institutions with more capabilities to serve the country's major strategies, produce first-class innovators and brightest minds, ensure talents are adaptive to the transformation from Made in China to Created in China, and support the construction of Chinese path to modernization; and thirdly, we need to optimize the structure of higher education, promote the reform of professional settings and training systems, refine the allocation of majors, facilitate the integration of industries and professions in the market, and make higher education more aligned with the needs of the labor market. Meanwhile, we should strengthen skill training in the country's scarce industries, adopt flexible methods to develop elderly human resources, and create opportunities for senior citizens to participate in social activities.

In summary, we should regard the strategy for invigorating China through science and education and the strategy on developing a quality workforce as the key to high-quality population development, and export quality and well-structured talents in a large quantity to the economic and social system, in order to make continuous progress in population quality and accelerate the transformation from resource-based demographic dividend to the quality-based one.

Quality-for-Quantity and Structural Change are Essential Options for Gaining Population Dividend

Based on the population base during the period of Chinese path to modernization, we must bear in mind that comprehensive population quality is crucial to the high-quality population development through reform and innovation, in order to offset the decrease in population and aging population by improving the demographic quality. Human capital is a more powerful, and sustainable engine for sustainable economic and social development. The negative growth in population and working-age population lasts a long time and almost irreversible, which will inevitably change the supply and demand of the entire labor market and deeply affect the pattern of population and economic and social development. In fact, from another perspective, the stock of human resources is jointly determined by population quantity and quality. When the population quantity element in human resources is waning, it can be maintained or even increased by enhancing the population quality elements, and the population quality elements and human capital can complement each other.

Undeniably, the cultivation and supply of high-quality labor resources is only a prerequisite for actualizing capital-based population dividend. It must be clear that “population opportunity” is a demography concept and a demographic condition conducive to economic and social development formed in the process of population transformation, including the number of labor forces, population structure, and population quality. Population dividend is an economic concept, which is an economic output deriving from population opportunities. Population opportunities will not automatically transform into demographic dividend, so the intermediary factors or transformation mechanisms are economic and social decisions and environments adaptive to population opportunities. Humans are the most dynamic, creative and dynamic element in the input to economic and social development. The comprehensive development of humans and high-quality population development are inherent requirements for sustainable economic and social development. Therefore, as a series of national strategies such as modernization, full employment, rejuvenating the country through science and education, strengthening the country through talents, new urbanization, coordinated regional development, rural revitalization, and coping with aging issues are rolled out, we should fully explore and take advantage of population opportunities, particularly the benefits from overall improvement of population quality, create new population dividend, promote high-quality economic and social development, bolster Chinese modernization through high-quality population development, and carry on the miracles achieved in economic and social development.