At a conference on the Chinese economy in 2012, Cai Fang, a demographer at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, issued a dire warning: “There’s now no doubt China will be old before it is rich.” He was expressing a view widely held by economists and China watchers. Over the past 65 years, life expectancy in China has more than doubled, from 35 years to roughly 75, as the fertility rate has plunged. Many fear that if these trends continue, China’s population will age faster than the country can accommodate. In 2014, the share of China’s population older than 60 reached roughly 15 percent; demographers predict that figure will double by 2050, reaching the equivalent of nearly 450 million people, or about one-quarter of the world’s elderly. Over the same period, China’s median age will skyrocket, from roughly 35 to 46. China, some experts say, is in for a shock: As more and more people age out of their working years, the country’s economic productivity will plummet. And as its growth slows, China will find itself without the money and resources to provide for its elderly, who will become a financial burden.
But a closer look at China’s demographics reveals a more positive picture. For one thing, although China’s working-age population has been shrinking, its employment rate has been increasing steadily, as has the productivity of those entering the work force. For another, since around 2000, the Chinese government has aggressively prioritized the creation and expansion of public welfare programs to support the elderly. In 2007, Chinese President Hu Jintao signaled that the country’s aging population had become a political priority when he included proposals for their well-being in his report to the 17th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. In 2009, Beijing enacted major reforms of its pension and health-care systems, and in 2013, an amended version of the country’s elderly rights law went into effect, calling for a comprehensive system for eldercare at the national and local levels. Put simply, as its population