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China's Slowing Population Growth, Internally Displaced Persons, and Corruption

Ambassador Mark Green
Smiling Chinese Children
Li'an Village, China - November 26, 2007: A group of smiling Chinese children wearing their regulation red scarves gather outside their school.

Nearly one in five people in the world today come from the People’s Republic of China. Yet, according to UN projections, it will no longer be the world’s most populous nation by 2027.

China’s population growth is slowing. What are the implications of that trend? Eventually a smaller workforce…which will in turn make it more difficult for the country to keep up its rapid economic growth. A shrinking population also means fewer working age individuals to serve as caretakers for elderly populations, or pay into the social safety net programs that these populations rely upon.

It’s no wonder, then, that the CCP recently announced a landmark policy shift: China will permit married couples to have three children. Yet that nation’s leaders are apparently poised to go even further…not only loosening all restrictions, but actually encouraging families to have more children.

Remember, it was only five years ago that China announced its initial shift from the country’s infamous one-child policy to a more lenient two-child policy. However, the two-child policy has not had the desired effect. Annual birthrates have continued to decline. In 2020, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, China reached a record low of 12 million births per year.

On the other side of the coin, Africa, and especially sub-Saharan Africa, is growing rapidly. The continent is expected to account for 57 percent of the world’s population growth between now and 2055. In 2020, about 60 percent of Africa’s population was under the age of 25. This young population brings economic challenges to the continent in the form of an increasing strain on resources and the need to create huge numbers of new jobs each year for many years into the future. But this growth also brings immense potential in the form of bright young minds, who will be creative and eager to build their own brighter future.

So which nation will overtake China in the next decade? Look next door. India already accounts for one of every six or so people in the world, and it has experienced rapid growth for some years. While India is beginning to see its growth level off, its “population growth momentum” will still carry it past China in just several years’ time.

Refugees are generally displaced from their home country for at least 20 years, while IDPs (internally displaced persons) are displaced within their home country for at least a decade. And these time spans of displacement are growing fast.

The latest UN numbers show over 82 million people in the world are forcibly displaced from their homes at present. The top five source countries for refugees cover four different continents—and mean that displacement touches nearly every corner of the world. And the growing length of displacement means that huge groups of people will likely not return to their homes for some time in the future. Taken together, these numbers suggest that we’re watching a generation of young people growing up displaced…socially disconnected from the world around them and vulnerable to the worst kinds of exploitative forces.

The greatest costs and suffering from displacement are obviously borne by those millions of people who have been forced into flight. But they’re not the only ones who carry a burden. Roughly 85 percent of refugees are hosted by low- and middle-income countries, putting a significant strain on these already stretched governments and economies. The generosity of the U.S (far and away the largest bilateral donor of humanitarian assistance) and other nations helps, but the impact of displacement on countries like Jordan and Colombia can’t be overstated.

Analysts have traditionally spoken of three “durable solutions” for refugees: return to their home country, voluntary resettlement, and local integration. However, these solutions are increasingly not possible for many displaced individuals. In 2016, less than three percent of refugees achieved one of these solutions.

Some analysts are increasingly pointing towards a new fourth “solution”: self-reliance. The goal of self-reliance is not to change an individual’s immediate circumstances, but instead to strengthen their ability to independently care for themselves and their families within those circumstances. Help in finding a job in their present location is just one example. [Note: “Self-reliance” in this context is different from that term’s meaning in the USAID/global development context.]

Self-reliance may be a practical, even admirable, goal given the extent of the current crisis. However, it is unlikely to serve as a sustainable option for many displaced populations. In many host countries, it is impractical, if not impossible, for displaced persons to secure work permits. And while jobs in the informal sector may be better than no work at all, workers from displaced communities are often deeply vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

Bottom-line: Not only are more and more people becoming displaced, but more and more people are remaining displaced for far too long.

Of the 20 countries ranked worst for corruption in 2020, all but one of them were also categorized as “not free.”

Corruption is a problem in many, if not most, parts of the world. But there are some countries where corruption—including large-scale, government-run, corruption, or “kleptocracy”—is a way of life. Unsurprisingly, these countries are often the very same ones who repress their own citizens.

Each year, the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) of Transparency International ranks countries on a scale of zero (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean) based on perceived levels of corruption in the private sector. In 2020, Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Singapore, Sweden, and Switzerland were ranked highest in the CPI. (All of them had scores of 85 or better.) On the other hand, South Sudan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and Venezuela ranked lowest in the index, with scores of 15 or worse. As Transparency International noted in its report, countries that scored well on the CPI were less likely to violate democratic norms and institutions than those who did not.

Fighting corruption doesn’t mean, of course, that a country will necessarily become more democratic. On the other hand, allowing corruption to grow and expand makes democracy—citizen-centered, citizen-responsive governance—nearly impossible to achieve.

Perhaps that’s why the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an independent federal agency that “invests in [lower income] countries that are committed to good governance, economic freedom, and investing in their people” treats corruption as a “hard hurdle.” Countries that fail to achieve certain scores in the World Bank’s “Control of Corruption” index are essentially barred from entering into development compacts with MCC.

The Helsinki Commission’s recent report, Ties That Bind, also draws a clear link between authoritarian governments and corruption. But it also makes a further connection, by suggesting that doing business with authoritarian governments creates vulnerabilities for America’s critical supply chains.

About the Author

Ambassador Mark Green

Ambassador Mark Green

President, Director, & CEO, Wilson Center
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