China’s Northeastern Rust Belt is headed for demographic crisis

We’ve been hearing a lot about the economic and political problems of America’s Rust Belt lately, so perhaps this is a good time to take a closer look at the slow-motion crisis that is unfolding in China’s northeastern Rust Belt. The Chinese newspaper Diyi Caijing (aka Yicai Media or China Business News) has over the past two months run a four-part series about the emerging demographic problems in the Northeast, and I think it pulls together what is known about the issue quite well.

This is harder than it might sound: a number of Northeastern cities have stopped publishing population figures in recent years, and data from the 2015 mid-cycle census update has not yet been published. But it seems more likely than not that the severe economic slowdown in the Northeast over the past couple of years has worsened the demographic trends that were already underway. When more data becomes available, which is likely to happen in 2017, the extent of the problem should become quite obvious. (For previous coverage of related issues, see: my maps of six decades of population flows in China; some history of the mass migration into the Northeast in the early 20th century; and portraits of industrial decay outside the Northeast)

Below I translate excerpts from all four articles, which I’ve reorganized a bit by topic (the original reports are here: Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4).

The first big problem is a dramatic decline in the birthrate:

The Northeast has a low birthrate, and population growth is stagnating. As early as 1982, the the total fertility rate in the three provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang had fallen below the global replacement rate [of 2.33], to 1.773, 1.842 and 2.062 respectively, noticeably below the national average of 2.584. Afterward, as the one-child policy was implemented, the total fertility rate of the Northeast fell below 1.0, and in 2010, the the sixth population census showed that it was only 0.75.

What’s behind this fertility situation? There are a lot of state-owned enterprises in the Northeast, and they strictly implemented the one-child policy, so there were not many excess births.

As the “first born” of the People’s Republic, industrialization was earlier and more extensive in the Northeast than in other places. Large state-owned enterprises across the three northeastern provinces provided people with an enviable “iron rice bowl,” but also more stringent birth control. A 58-year-old Harbin taxi driver, Mr. Zhu, told this reporter that in those years, when he used to work at a state enterprise, the pay was high, the benefits were pretty good; he had a lot of face and more confidence in finding a partner. Everyone valued those state-enterprise jobs, so very few people were willing to lose the iron rice bowl in order to have more children than allowed. Even in the countryside, because of the large numbers of state farms and state forests, people needed to keep their iron rice bowls, so very few dared to violate the family-planning rules.

“All these years, among my colleagues, relatives, friends, there is not one who violated the family planning policy. Doing that would mean unemployment, so who would dare?” Mr. Zhu said.

Aside from the family-planning policy, a high urbanization rate is another important factor depressing the fertility rate in the Northeast. Research shows that the fertility rate is inversely related to the urbanization rate–the higher the urbanization rate, the lower the fertility rate. Urbanization in the Northeast preceded rest of the nation by decades. Statistics show that in 1975 the national urbanization rate was 17%, but in the Northeast it was already 35%; in 1990 the national rate was 26% and the Northeast was 48%; in 2010, the national rate reached 50%, but the Northeast was already 58%.

The second big problem is an exodus of people to other provinces:

The Northeast was once a place that attracted a major inflow of people–the “Chuang Guandong” [the massive migration of Han Chinese to Manchuria from the late 19th century through the 1940s] has even today left a deep impression in many people’s memories. But a net inflow of population is now history. According to the Liaoning Blue Book published by the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, the fifth population census of 2000 showed there had been a net inflow of 360,000 people into the three northeastern provinces over the previous ten years, but the sixth population census ten years later showed there had been a net outflow of 2 million people.

Luo Dandan, a researcher at the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences, has spent years following up those survey results, and says that the outflow of people from the three northeastern provinces has sped up in recent years. Looking at individual cities, the trend of population outflow is also very obvious. Figures from the municipal statistics bureau of Qiqihar [in Heilongjiang province] show that city had net outmigration of 37,779 people in 2014; the figure was 25,381 people in 2013, so the the outflow is accelerating.

Luo says that in peacetime most population movements are for economic reasons, and that it is uneven economic development in different regions that drives workers to move to places with better job opportunities and higher wages. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the average urban wage in the Northeast was 57,319 yuan in 2015, below the national average of 62,029 yuan.

Such an obvious gap in income levels drives many young people and technical personnel to choose to “migrate to the southeast like the peacock.” According to a cadre in the Heilongjiang province human resources and social security system, the outflow of university graduates is a major concern for him. Every year in the graduation period of May and June, the hotels near the Harbin Institute of Technology are fully booked with recruiters from Zhejiang and other coastal provinces.

The combined result of these two trends is a population that is aging rapidly:

Because the birthrate is low, the aging of the population in the Northeast is quite serious. According to Liu Kegu, a former vice-governor of China Development Bank, the median age of China’s population was 38 in 2015; but in the Northeast, it was 43, a level that the whole country is not expected to reach until 2027. One direct impact of an aging population is the burden of pensions. The dependency ratio of corporate pensions (the ratio of the number of workers in the pension program to the number receiving a pension) is 1.55 in the Northeast, far below the national average of 2.88. Liaoning is 1.79, Jilin is 1.53, and Heilongjiang at 1.33 is the lowest in the nation.

The low fertility rate has created a serious problem of fewer young people. Demographic statistics show that the Northeast’s share of youthful workers aged 20-39 has fallen from 10% in 1982 to 8.1% in 2010. And in 2010 the Northeast’s share of the population aged 0-19 was 6%, which means that in 2030 the Northeast’s share of the 20-39 youthful workforce will be 6% of the national total.

Zhou Tianyong of the Central Party School argues that this age group is the main economic force in the population, so the decline in the numbers of this group will have a great impact on the economy through labor supply, consumption, investment and other factors.

Another manifestation is the aging of the workforce. In terms of absolute numbers, the working-age population in the Northeast is still quite substantial, but one-third of this population is aged 45-64, so the aging of the workforce is indeed serious.

Population movement also further exacerbates the aging of the population in the Northeast. The Northeast has experienced a net out-migration of population for 20 years, and more than 60% of Northeasterners who leave do so for economic or business reasons. An official report has warned that, because of the fertility level and migration trends in the Northeast, the region is already locked into a trajectory of rapid population loss.

Is there anything to be done? The recent economic troubles have in fact gotten a lot of official attention, and the central government is backing a new version of the “Revitalize the Northeast” campaign. But it does not seem like the demographic aspects are being discussed much:

This reporter has attended many meetings on “Revitalizing the Northeast,” and heard many Northeastern governors and mayors discuss the road to revitalization, but unfortunately not one mentioned that the Northeast is facing a population crisis.



  1. Population growth hurts us all. The pain caused to society by population growth (increased competition among people for scarce resources, environmental degradation caused by attempts to extract more resources than the land can provide, etc.) is what caused the one child policy to be implemented. So going back to a situation in which population is increasing would be a return to painful conditions. Both China and the rest of the world are trying to figure out how to not grow. That is the new challenge.


  2. The Financial Times has an update:

    The depletion of the educated workforce has “worried” the central government, according to Zhou Jianping, director of the office in charge of transforming the north-east’s economy at the National Development and Reform Commission. “Most of the people who left that region are elites, at the management level or the backbone of production lines,” Mr Zhou said.


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