Though the global economy is perhaps richer than ever before, at least in terms of material wealth and technological innovations, many nations are beginning to lack the most important asset of all — people. And few have been more outspoken about this problem than the world’s richest man.
Elon Musk recently reacted to the news that China — which boasts a population of more than 1.4 billion — added a mere 480,000 people in 2021 by issuing a warning that the east Asian country is poised for population collapse. Indeed, Chinese fertility rates plummeted from 1.3 to 1.15 births per woman between 2020 and 2021 alone — indicating that the Chinese are having children far below replacement levels. With each generation, up to 40% of the population may disappear.
The conventional wisdom for the past half century — and even beforehand — said that “too many people” would do nothing more than stifle natural resources. However, Elon Musk — a relentless optimist — is saying the opposite.
The notion of centrally planned population control in China traces its roots to a British philosopher named Thomas Malthus, who theorized that the nation’s birthrate would outstrip its ability to grow food — thereby inducing mass starvation. Though his ideas proved to be dead wrong in the subsequent decades, Malthusian thought, nonetheless, spread alongside the ideology of Karl Marx in communist China.
As detailed in a 1991 paper from Cornell University professor Joseph Mayone Stycos, the adoption of China’s infamous One Child Policy came after decades of propaganda meant to warp the public perception of family planning, contraception, and abortion — necessary tools to achieve the communist leadership’s vision for the masses.
The Chinese were initially wary of family planning, due to fears among medical providers that the practice would increase sexual licentiousness and thereby erode public morality. Yet, in the decades after World War II, propagandists have found ways to cut through such outdated views. “Group leaders would highlight new thinking and tell with pride of their own contraceptive efforts,” Stycos explained. “These were standard techniques for political indoctrination and for innovating whatever economic reform was current.”
By the 1980s, officials started to establish grassroots monitoring, financial and social initiatives, and other mechanisms to enforce adherence to government-issued “one-child certificates.” Echoing Malthusian language, one Chinese deputy prime minister said in 1979 that “too rapid an increase in population is detrimental to the acceleration of capital accumulation…hinders our efforts to quickly raise the scientific and cultural level of the nation…and is detrimental to the improvement of the people’s standard of living.”
Even in the modern West, there are remnants of Malthusian thinking that are still going strong. In 1968, Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich wrote a bestselling book called “The Population Bomb,” which predicted that “hundreds of millions of people will starve to death” in the 1970s and 1980s. His predictions — which turned out to be completely wrong — led to billions of dollars of spending to combat overpopulation through entities like the United Nations Population Fund. In some parts of the world, women were forcibly sterilized.
Today, the spirit of Malthus also endures through climate alarmism. A recent investor note from analysts at Morgan Stanley said that the “movement to not have children owing to fears over climate change is growing and impacting fertility rates quicker than any preceding trend in the field of fertility decline.” Thousands of young people around the world have signed the “No Future Pledge” — which encourages them to opt out of reproduction in the interest of cutting carbon emissions.
With respect to China, many Western media outlets still report on the One Child Policy through rose-colored glasses. “Overpopulation in a country is the result of the number of people in an area being much higher than the country’s available resources,” declared one Business Insider article from 2016 complete with “mesmerizing photographs” depicting large crowds of Chinese citizens.
To this day, the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China has a clause stating that “both husband and wife have the duty to practice family planning.” Yet, now that the Chinese government’s goals have changed, leaders are having difficulties turning the ship from population suppression to population growth.
China tossed its One Child Policy six years ago in favor of a Three Child Policy — and other public initiatives are now supporting the new benchmark. In the course of a few days, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced several reforms last summer meant to cut living expenses for families with multiple children.
For one, the Chinese government increased certain mortgage rates in an attempt to make housing more affordable, seeking to discourage private investors from using residential real estate for speculative purposes.
For another, the Chinese government unveiled new regulations for the nation’s $120 billion private tutoring industry. Chinese parents routinely seek tutoring services throughout their children’s primary and secondary years to prepare them for highly competitive college entrance exams. The move gutted the private tutoring industry virtually overnight.
Despite Xi’s best attempts, there are still many trends inhibiting an immediate jump in fertility. Beyond fear over strict government lockdowns — such as the ones that gripped Shanghai this spring — the cultural value of having small families may now be baked into the Chinese cultural landscape.
As Musk hinted, China may disappear altogether unless change occurs. According to a report from the progressive-leaning Brookings Institution, China now has a rapidly aging labor force and a shortage of younger workers.
“Increased spending obligations created by the aging of the population will not only shift resources away from investment and production; they will also test the government’s ability to meet rising demands for benefits and services,” the report explained. “In combination, a declining labor supply and increased public and private spending obligations will result in an economic growth model and a society that have not been seen in China before.”
Because China is now the second-largest economy in the world, the impacts could be global.
A Voice In The Wilderness
As China stares a demographic crisis in the face, could a South African-born space entrepreneur in the United States reverse the phenomenon?
Elon Musk — the father of six children and the leader of SpaceX and Tesla — has repeatedly blasted the remaining followers of Malthus. With respect to United Nations population predictions, Musk told the world that they were “utter nonsense.” With respect to the collapsing population of Japan, Musk warned that the nation will “cease to exist.”
“I think one of the biggest risks to civilization is the low birthrate and the rapidly declining birthrate,” Musk explained at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit last year. “And yet, so many people, including smart people, think that there are too many people in the world and think that the population is growing out of control. It’s completely the opposite. Please look at the numbers — if people don’t have more children, civilization is going to crumble, mark my words.”
In Musk’s view, people are assets rather than liabilities. With more people comes more creativity, innovative capacity, and productivity. Human beings have the remarkable ability to produce more than they need to consume, for the benefit of themselves and others.
After four decades of following the pessimistic regime of Malthus, perhaps it is time for the Chinese — and the rest of the world — to embrace the optimistic outlook of Musk.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.