The above phrase (attributed to Nineteenth Century French sociologist August Comte) has become rote shorthand for the idea that the direction in size and scale of a country’s population is closely correlated with its longer term economic growth and political power- the idea being, essentially: “More younger bodies good. More older bodies bad” (especially if the overall population is static or shrinking). Historically, population growth was certainly a matter of concern to governments which needed to deploy “hard power” (i.e., trained armies and navies- and, later, air forces- manned by relatively young men) in order to project power.
So, much is being made of the likelihood that the PRC’s population is on the verge of beginning to contract (for the first time since the founding of the state in 1949), with that reality being seen as so politically sensitive that the results of the latest census were delayed (and perhaps pre-emptively “massaged”) before being revealed, and then followed by the government encouraging a “3-child” policy. Policy as irony, given the past! Meanwhile, in the US, the initial results of the latest decennial census indicate that the rate of population growth has fallen to the lowest levels since the Great Depression, with the pandemic also heralding a “baby bust”, rather than “boom”.
Naturally, much hand-wringing has followed.
After all, the “received wisdom” is that, in itself, population stability or decline leads gradually to an erosion of geopolitical influence. Of course, it is much more complicated than that. The fastest growing populations in the world are currently mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, yet most of those countries are politically and economically weak, even failed or failing states, with negligible external power or influence.
In reality, while, eventually, population decline and ageing need to be compensated for by immigration (as a reversal in birth rates is almost invariably not feasible) if a society is not to “fade away” (consider Japan), the modern world offers advanced nations, such as the US and the PRC, many ways in which to maintain and even augment power and influence for an extended period, whether in military technology, or through AI and cyber capabilities, as well as through the “soft power” of culture and the deployment of financial capacity through lending and investment. Stealth, careful targeting, superior and adaptive command and control systems, and leaders who are not “still fighting the last war” are essential to the use of “kinetic force”, rather than the ability to hurl forward waves of ill-trained conscripts- consider the Iran/Iraq war of 1980-88 if you wish for evidence of the futility of that approach.
What really matters is whether governments are able to decide upon and implement a coherent mix of policies that accept the reality of population trends, and adjust for them over time. There are no “quick fixes”. This is one reason why immigration is a topic that constantly roils many a body politic, as the “incumbent” population often responds badly to the idea of simply “importing” more people, even if, objectively, they realize that any state needs at least to maintain the ratio between the productive, wealth-creating segment of its population and those who become net consumers.
This inherent tension in most, if not all societies is not a new theme, being in many ways as old as recorded history. However, those nations which wish to maintain influence and deter aggression are going to have to combine technology with economic and demographic policy in order to do so.
Forget “hand-wringing”; and focus on iterative adaptation to reality.
The Awbury Team