China demographics

03 Mar 2023

There has been quite a lot of speculation and analysis about China’s demographics, and particularly about its fallen birth rate and the related likely fall in China’s population. Already India has likely surpassed China in total population. The current projection in the UN’s 2022 World Population Prospects is for China to fall from its 2022 population of 1.4 billion to 1.3 billion by 2050, 1 billion by 2075, and 771 million by 2100. In the space of three generations, China’s population would be cut in half.

There are some interesting nuances hidden in these statistics. The fertility rate dropped from 5.8 live births per woman in 1950 to 1.93 per woman in 1990. It is currently still declining; however, while the projection estimates total births will continue to decline through 2100, the per-woman birth rate will bottom out around 1.21 in 2025, and then begin to climb: to 1.39 by 2050 and 1.48 by 2100. (The male/female disparity will also likely change: in 2000, there were 117 male births for every female; by 2025 this will likely be 106. Make of that shift what you will.) Obviously, even a rebounded rate of 1.48 births per woman falls below what is required to prevent decline. Generally, a fertility rate of 2.1 is required for a population to at least be stable.

There has been quite a bit of discussion about what these trends mean for China: for its economy, and for its place in the world. One example from this issue: an aging economy means not enough young workers to help support the pensions of the elderly. The Roundup, however, is focused more on how trends impact the church and access to unevangelized peoples. And in the area of Christianity & China’s demographics, I have seen less said than perhaps could be.

In Cities of God: the real story of how Christianity became an urban movement and conquered Rome, Rodney Stark discusses in part how Christianity ‘outlived’ Rome by its response to suffering: “These were not just slogans. Members did nurse the sick, even during epidemics; they did support orphans, widows, the elderly, and the poor; they did concern themselves with the lot of slaves. In short, Christians created ‘a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services” (chapter 2). By doing so, they contributed to an environment where the lifespan increased beyond that of the average Roman.

In addition, it’s well documented that atheists and agnostics have birth rates below those of religious groups. Here I embark into an area that is perilous, because there’s been a lot written about Muslim vs Christian birth rates that is not true (a topic for a time). That said, Christians and Muslims both have fertility rates higher than any other group, while atheists and agnostics have rates below replacement levels (see “The Changing Global Religious Landscape,” Pew Research).

While this is a global summary, there are of course regional differences. The global rate is driven in part by Africa’s high birth rates. In other places, the Christian fertility rate is below replacement level. In America, for example, the demographic picture of America’s Christians is mixed (see “Baby Blues,” Christianity Today). While the picture in Asia and particularly China is not completely clear, still we can say Christianity’s birth rate appears to be higher than that of the unaffiliated. And that gives rise to three potential scenarios:

  • Not shrinking as fast: if Christianity’s birth rate is below 2.1, yet higher than the unaffiliated, then while Christianity in China would shrink, it would not shrink as fast as the population—and so, in fact, would maintain or increase its share of the population.
  • Hitting replacement level: if Christianity’s birth rate (or even births+conversions) is somewhere close to the 2.1 level, then it could not only maintain its share of the population, but also its absolute numbers. This would lead to a marked gain in Christianity’s percentage of the nation.
  • Hitting above replacement level: If Christianity’s growth rate (births + conversions) is significantly above 2 per woman, then it could see a very accelerated growth in its percentage share.

While the final numbers are unpredictable, to me a scenario in which Christianity in China at leastholds its current numbers seems quite possible. Right now, China has about 120 to 150 million believers (10%) in a population of 1.4 billion. If the Christian population stays roughly the same while the overall population drops to 1.3 billion by 2050, the % Christian would climb to 12%. If it continued to hold its own while the population dropped to 1 billion, then to 15%. And if, by 2100, it remained at 150 million against 770 million total population, then to 19%. A China that was 20% Christian would be a very different China.

This is obviously a very long range projection and should only be taken as an understanding of how trends could completely change the future of a nation. I don’t think it will play out in exactly this way, and I’m not saying China will definitely reach these % thresholds. However, Christianity as a rising percentage seems a likely path. A Christianity that outlasts the current government - just as the early church outlasted Rome - is something to be envisioned. And we don’t have to wait until 2100 to see the impact. The current generation of political leaders will not live forever, and as they die out, who will be the next generation? Given current birth rates, it seems likely more of that leadership will come from the ranks of Christians than at present (and there are Christians in government right now).

In the long run, Christianity ‘conquered’ Rome. There is some argument about whether this was a good thing or not, obviously. But a similar ‘conquering’ of China - in spite of the current situation - is not out of the cards.