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A Chinese national flag flutters on the Pearl River in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China. Picture: REUTERS
A Chinese national flag flutters on the Pearl River in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, China. Picture: REUTERS

When China hastily scrubbed a news story off its internet last week, it might as well have fired a flare into the night sky while it banged out SOS in morse code on an empty oil drum. 

Within minutes, the Streisand effect was in full swing — that phenomenon whereby trying to censor something thrusts it squarely into the spotlight — and soon media watchdogs and the international press revealed what had been yanked. China, they claimed, was about to announce that its population had shrunk by a shocking 3-million people in 2023.  

Perhaps determined not to be rushed by the running dogs of Western capital, or else to give its demographers time to cook up another, lower figure that still looked plausible, Beijing instead revealed something else: a new plan to build what it called a “silver economy” for its ageing population, perhaps involving thousands of call centres where operators endlessly say “Is it plugged in? And have you tried switching it off and on again?” 

The subtext of the announcement and its timing was clear: whichever number Beijing was about to pull out of its patented fact-massaging machine, the important thing to remember was that there was a plan. 

It’ll have to a be a good one. When the official figure was finally published last week it revealed that China contracted by 2-million people last year, the equivalent of a town like Senekal or Vredenburg disappearing every single week.  

It’s not just China. Japan is now losing a Pietermaritzburgworth of citizens every year. Eastern Europe is emptying out so fast that bears and wolves have started preying on livestock again.  

In China, though, the economic upheavals will almost certainly be largest, and come the soonest. According to China’s Academy of Science, quoted by The Guardian — and I should stress that these are the official figures approved by Beijing — China’s pension system will run out of money 12 years from now, just as the number of Chinese over the age of 60 reaches 400-million. 

It’s possible that the silver economy might be working a treat by then, with aircraft carriers converted into floating bingo halls, jingling day and night. But I can also imagine a fair amount of anxiety in Beijing right now as the Communist Party lies awake wondering if it was a good idea to give military training to 400-million penniless retirees who have nothing to do all day but remember how to throw a hand grenade.  

Of course, the world’s population is still rising, and will for many years yet. Whether you believe the UN’s latest projection (a peak just above 10-billion by 2100) or Bill Gates’ (9.7-billion in the 2060s) will probably depend more on your politics than your knowledge of demography, but either way it seems clear that we’re still on our way up. 

What is also clear though is that we’re coasting. Humanity took its foot off the population pedal in the 1960s, and whatever is happening now is, like the stars we see at night, a reflection of a time already far in the past.  

Unfortunately, beliefs from the past will also cling on and confuse the issue. Even now, Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb exerts a kind of rigor mortis grip on many debates on social media, with far too many people still convinced that overpopulation is about to kill us all.  

Perhaps the most unhelpful of these old beliefs is the pervasive suspicion of immigration, exploited by politicians in every election cycle and clung to by nativists to prop up their creaky, anachronistic worldview.  

The white right especially has glommed onto the belief that white Americans and Europeans are being deliberately “replaced” by “durn furners”. What they don’t understand, of course, is that without those “furners”, some of their societies would have collapsed years ago.The last time birth rates in the US, UK and EU were high enough to keep the populations stable was the early 1970s. Since then, immigration has made up the shortfall.  

Indeed, according to the UK’s Office of National Statistics, were it not for foreign-born mothers having their babies in the UK, the populations of England and Wales would be falling at about 150,000 a year — a city roughly the size of Oxford or Cambridge simply vanishing off the map every 12 months. 

Yes, the developed world and China will have to understand that immigration is their only route to the future, and that it will be immigration from the only place that will still be producing young people in large numbers, at least until the end of the century: Africa.  

Of course, it’s possible that between then and now Africa’s better leaders will find ways to harness their demographic dividends. It’s also possible that hundreds of millions of Africans will leave to work and ultimately settle in the “silver economies” of the Global North.  

The ironies of history can be peculiar: Africans nurtured humanity when it was being born, and Africans will care for it as it grows old. 

Last week China gave us a little tour of 20th-century nostalgia, with familiar throwbacks like state censorship and the expert use of diversions such as silver economies to paper over widening cracks.

But what its demographers gave us was a polite reminder that the future is here; and it’s going to be strange in ways we can’t begin to imagine.  

• Eaton is an Arena Holdings columnist.

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