Thursday, 18 March 2010

Has China come to the end of history?

In my previous posts, I’ve argued that China is entering a demographic transition that is already occurring in other developed countries, i.e., decline of the indigenous population and progressive replacement by higher-fertility immigrants. In this post, I’ll focus on how the initial phase will play out over the next ten years.

The China of tomorrow can be seen in the city of Guangzhou, formerly known to Westerners by the name of Canton. In the past five years, it has taken in a large immigrant community, essentially from sub-Saharan Africa. How large? The Chinese authorities have no estimates, at least not officially. Bodomo (2009) suggests a total of over 100,000. He also mentions sizeable African communities in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macao. According to Li et al. (2007), Africans started showing up in Guangzhou after 1998 and their numbers began to take off in the mid-2000s, although the increase seems to have slowed with the current recession. Rennie (2010) likewise suggests a figure of 100,000:

The dream of riches has fuelled a boom in the number of African migrants to Guangzhou. Immigration has increased by one-third each year since 2003, as word spreads that there is money to be made. There are now an estimated 20,000 Africans legally resident in the city – predominantly West African, young and male – and an unknown number of illegal residents and short-term visitors could swell the figure toward 100,000.

This community will likely grow further in the coming decade. The Chinese authorities may try to slow its growth through a carrot-and-stick approach: some kind of amnesty together with a beefing up of immigration control. Such half-measures will probably fail. Illegal immigrants can simply hide among the many who now have legal status. In any case, efforts to round them up will inevitably produce ugly incidents that could harm China’s special relationship with sub-Saharan Africa—her leading source of raw materials. Such measures could strike Africans as being hypocritical:

There’s an irony here. For years, Chinese business, from oil producing giants to individual entrepreneurs, have been encouraged to set up shop in Africa and foster trade relations. In 2007, China invested US$7–billion in the continent. In their destination countries, Chinese are welcomed with open arms. […] That warm welcome has not been reciprocated in Guangzhou, where African businessmen have
few rights and little legal protection.
(Moxley, 2009)

This relationship with Africa will become all the more crucial over the coming decade. China already imports a third of her crude oil from Africa and that figure could easily rise to a half. At that point, the tail will start wagging the dog. Even a temporary cessation of African oil would severely hurt the Chinese economy.

So, five years hence, the African community in Guangzhou will likely have swollen to over 300,000. Similar communities will have taken root elsewhere in southern China. By then, both push and pull factors will come into play. The push factor: hundreds of millions of potential migrants in a zone stretching from Sierra Leone to the Horn of Africa. The pull factor: a return by China to high rates of economic growth. The inevitable will happen. The trail has already been blazed and there will be plenty of people at both ends to make the journey easier.

Finally, China’s own demography will facilitate the insertion of immigrants. By the year 2030, her population will peak in absolute numbers and start to decline, slowly at first and then at an ever faster pace. Deaths already outnumber births in Hong Kong and Macao, and this ‘population sink’ will probably spread to most of urban China over the coming decade. Vacancies will open up in the job market and in housing estates, especially if China continues to ride a wave of strong economic growth. There will be plenty of niches that immigrants can move into: vacant tenements; risky or low-paying jobs in construction and services; etc. Meanwhile, rising food prices will keep more and more Chinese on the land. There will still be migration from rural areas, but it won’t be enough to quench the thirst of China’s ‘bubble economy’.

And so, in high-growth urban centers, a process of population replacement will set in. On the one hand, an aging and often childless indigenous population; on the other, a youthful immigrant community with fertility well above replacement. Much of urban China will take on a multiracial look with many districts becoming minority Chinese. If this trend continues, China will cease to be a vehicle for a specific people, culture, and civilization. It will become an administrative unit—a managerial state that exists to maximize the return for its ‘shareholders.’

For some pundits, such a scenario is nothing terrible. We have come to the end of history and now it is China’s turn. If Chinese individuals wish to go on being Chinese, they can do so in their spare time with their own money. Collective purpose no longer exists. There is only never-ending self-enrichment.

Has China come to the end of history? Such an assertion carries more than a touch of human vanity. History goes on regardless of what we proclaim. And it is doubtful whether the current good times will go on forever. Like the rest of the world, China will hit the wall of peak oil, even with all the resources of Africa. Its aquifers will dry out or be hopelessly contaminated. Its shrinking farmlands will no longer yield enough food. Sooner or later, Nature herself will cry out ‘Enough!’

And sooner or later, an aging, diverse, and increasingly non-Chinese population will no longer have the dynamism or unity of purpose that once made China so successful. People will begin to suspect that the secret of her success lay not only in a particular economic system, but also in the Chinese people.


Bodomo, A. (2009) The African Trading Community in Guangzhou (广州): An Emerging Bridge for Africa-China Relations, accepted (October 2009) for publication in China Quarterly.

Li, Z., D. Xue, M. Lyons, & A. Brown. (2007). Ethnic Enclave of Transnational Migrants in Guangzhou: A Case Study of Xiaobei.

Moxley, M. (2009). Big trouble in Little Africa, The Walrus, Jan. 19, 2009.

Rennie, N. (2010). Africans in China: Sweet and Sour in Guangzhou. The Africa Report, February 1, 2010.


Eugene said...

The same kind of logic could be applied to the US. The US is also on track to become a minority-majority country where whites will become a minority by 2050. But the thing is, you don't have to be white to be American. There are Americans whose names are Kim, Abdul, and Yonggang. The Anglo-Saxon genes may no longer rule the country, but the Anglo *memes* will be carried on by American-born people of non-Anglo origin.

Now let's consider what you wrote about China:

"And sooner or later, an aging, diverse, and increasingly non-Chinese population will no longer have the dynamism or unity of purpose that once made China so successful. People will begin to suspect that the secret of her success lay not only in a particular economic system, but also in the Chinese people."

The initially foreign population will eventually be Chinese-born, kind of like 2nd- and 3rd- generation immigrants in the US. They will speak the Chinese language and adopt the culture. So are you making a racial argument here? That despite common memes (culture and language), it's the genes (the racial makeup) that matters, for both China and the US?

I'm not necessarily disagreeing, it's a subject that I personally am very interested in, but it is considerably controversial.

Mark said...

China has a billion plus people. It could absorb one hundred million Africans and still be ninety percent East Asian. And as I mentioned in the lady post, China's one child policy will work to keep African fertility in check. (yes they are under pressure to drop the policy but they have to date resisted this pressure.)

I just don't see one hundred million plus Africans moving to China, I'm sorry. In the entire nineteenth century, fifty million Europeans moved to the New World, which is an outstanding number, but still far shortbof what would be needed to replace the Chinese in China.

And wouldn't Chinese development in Africa itself work to keep Agricans in Africa?

Mark said...

Ugh forgive my typos. Stupid iPhone.

Mr_Zlu said...


Every types of immigration are not equivalent.

As for the USA, it has only assimilated white and christian people.

The anglo-saxon way of doing things will eventually vanish once the anglo-saxon people are gone.

Just take a look at the East Asian democracies such as South Korea and Japan : they may seem democratic in their apperance but the facts are that their politicians are often part of a dynasty. The same thing in Latin America, in which the leaders are often pictured as "el Jefe".

I think it is rather implausible that the USA will still be the USA with the whites being the minority, no matter how the new majority is infused with American values and memes.


In order to keep the Africans in Africa, economic growth must be on par with the demographic one... which is very unlikely to happen.

I really doubt that miscegenation of the Chinese with the Africans is a good thing for the Chinese.

kurt9 said...

So, it would appear that China will head down the same road as Europe and North America. We can't expect a whole lot of help from Japan, South Korea, or Taiwan; given that all three of these places have lower birth rates than mainland China. Also, much of South-east Asia is near or below replacement as well (Philippines being the notable exception).

I have heard that most of the immigrants coming into Southern Europe are from Sub-Sahara Africa and not the muslim middle-east. I have also heard that even the lower birth-rate muslim countries (Morroco, Algeria, etc.) are also getting immigrants from Sub-Sahara Africa.

Peter Frost said...


Ten years ago, I felt much the same as you do now. In this, I was influenced by Lewontin and others who showed that genes vary much more within human populations than between human populations. I was also influenced by the idea that genetic evolution came to an end in our species when we began to develop cultural adaptations, i.e., cultural evolution has taken over from genetic evolution.

Today, I realize that both propositions are fundamentally wrong. Human genetic evolution has actually accelerated over the past 10,000 years because of culture and not in spite of culture. Culture, in fact, has created new and very different environments of natural selection. As for Lewontin, he was right in his data but wrong in his conclusions. We see the same genetic overlap between species that are morphologically and behaviourally distinct. Populations become different from each other because of differences in selection pressure that act on a small fraction of the total genome. Most genes, in fact, have little or no selective value. That’s why we see so much overlap even between species. This overlap eventually disappears but only after tens of thousands of years of reproductive isolation.

Today, I believe that human populations differ from each other in a wide variety of mental and behavioral traits. These differences are statistical and often slight. But even a slight statistical difference can make a big difference in the functioning of a human society.

Yes, I could be wrong. But where does the burden of proof fall in this case? Does it fall on those who advocate massive, irrevocable change? Or on those who seek to maintain the status quo?


You’re forgetting natural increase. Once the Afro-Chinese community is established, it will start to grow not only through immigration but also through natural increase. This increase will be high because of a higher fertility rate and a very youthful population structure. If you add all three factors together (immigration + high fertility + youthful age structure), the doubling time may be in the range of 3-5 years.

Another point. The Afro-Chinese community will not be spread evenly over China. It will largely be concentrated in the south, especially in the province of Guandong. I predict that by 2040, Guandong will be 20% African and 10% other non-Chinese. And those statistics won’t tell the whole story. The Chinese population will have a much higher mean age than the non-Chinese population. Even within Guandong, there will be differences. Hong Kong will be much as it is now but the urban and exurban districts between it and Guangzhou will be minority Chinese.

The one-child policy doesn’t seem to apply to Africans. See the Washington Post article: “Racial rethinking as Obama visits”

“P.C. Chike, a Nigerian businessman in Guangzhou who has been in China for five years, exports wigs and extensions made from Chinese hair to his home country. He married a Chinese woman from Beijing, and they have a son, with another on the way.”

I can’t help feeling that the Chinese authorities are terrified of harming their economic relationship with Africa. As for Chinese development in Africa, it will tend to open up migration routes between the two countries. Chinese men will marry local African women and then take them home at the end of their contract. African workers will be sent to China for apprenticeship, etc.

Mr. Zlu,

Dynasties can compensate for the worst features of plutocracy (which is where China seems to be heading). A dynastic ruler will care about his country’s long-term future, because his children and grandchildren will inherit the problems he leaves behind.


Since the mid-2000s, this has emerged as a global issue. Even countries like Israel and Algeria are feeling the brunt of sub-Saharan African immigration. I hope to write about this subject and its implications in a future post.

Anonymous said...

I just don't see one hundred million plus Africans moving to China,

Yeah. What sort of operation would be needed to move that many people?

Let's see? 100,000 per week. 1,000 weeks.

Yeah. That's would do it. Now, how many planes will that be? 300 per plane ... 555 planes per week.

Hmmm, ships? 20 ships per week, what is the transit time? 10 days? That's 200 ships to move them. I guess they could ship finished goods the other way. Of course, they will be shipping raw materials to China as well, so it probably means more ships, and so forth.

Peter Frost said...


Try adding the concepts of natural increase, youthful age structure, and exponential growth into your mental model.

Mark said...

Peter, you dismiss China's one child policy too quickly. as I said inthe comments to your last post, the policy does not apply to Africans now because it does not apply to minority groups of less than ten million. Once a minority crosses that threshold, it becomes subject to the one child policy. How can Africans replace the Han in china if they become subject to the one child policy as soon as they constitute one percent of the population?

Mr_Zlu said...


It would be very unlikeliy to the Han being replaced on an overall level.

Nut what is important is the local level.

Guangdong is very likely to see the impact of ethnic replacement. Unless dramatic measures are taken, which is not plausible due to the Chinese economic interests in Africa.

Besides, Africans often disregard laws and the Chinese police is very corrupted...

Peter Frost said...


The one-child policy is no longer strictly enforced for anyone. If you want to have two children, nothing terrible will happen to you. You might have to pay a fine. It will certainly be difficult to enforce a one-child policy on a population that is accustomed to having 4-6 children per family, especially if such enforcement is perceived as being racially motivated.

Keep in mind that the African immigrant community is composed almost entirely of people of reproductive age. There are few children and very few elderly among the Guangzhou Africans. Even if you halt all immigration tomorrow, and even if each couple has only two children, that community will double from 100,000 to 200,000. Even if their children have only two children per family, the community will grow because of its youthful age structure. So, at a minimum, the multiplier effect will be three-fold, i.e., for every 100,000 immigants, you will eventually have 300,000 people - even if you assume replacement-level fertility.

In reality, the multiplier effect you will be closer to 5-6.

Mark Wethman said...

Hmmm... Good points about the age structure of the immigrant population.

I looked up the urbanization rate of China and it seems that the country is still 50% rural. Wouldn't this suggest that there is a large rural population that might meet the demand for cheap labor? You mentioned that the rising cost of food would work to keep people on the land, but I wonder how much of an impediment to further urbanization that would really be...

Peter Frost said...


It's conventional wisdom that China has plenty of under-utilized labor in the countryside. Actually, cities in southern China are now having trouble attracting migrants from rural areas, despite rising wages.
See Prof. Jinbei Hu:

This is partly due to policy changes in 2003 to raise food prices and cut agricultural taxes. These changes, however, reflect apprehensions that food shortages will develop over the coming decade. The era of cheap food is over, both in China and in the West.

Tod said...

Youth Unemployment and Underemployment in Africa Brings Uncertainty and Opportunity .
The African countries have have a powerful motive for resisting any attempt to reduce the outflow of their surplus young men to China; African levels of unemployment are a social time-bomb.

Mr_Zlu said...


You forget about the quality of the manpower.

In Algeria, real estate is booming and plenty of buildings are being built... by the Chinese, who are paid 3 times the Algerian average wages. And in Algeria, the unemployment rate is offically 11% (but some says 35% in reality).

The Algerian boss delcares that he is willing to pay that much because he has the bang of his buck.

A common joke in Algeria is about the last time a lift worked in a building... it was the last day the French stayed in Algeria.

In French, the expression "travail d'arabe" (literally "work of an arab") designates a poorly executed job.

kurt9 said...

More on China's demographic future:

Working age population peak:
Japan 1995
China 2016 (latest)
India 2030

Total population peak:
Japan 2005
China 2026
India 2040

Southeast Asia, Latin America, and most of the Muslim Middle east has demographics mid way between China and India, meaning their populations peak before 2040 as well.

I give you one guess what kind of immigrants will come to the rest of the world starting in 2040.

What do you think the world will be like in 2070 or so?

Mr_Zlu said...


Haïti ?

Johannesburg ?

Rio de Janeiro ?

Sarajevo ?