Comparative policy responses to demographic change in East Asia


China is becoming increasingly urbanized as the government adopts policies to encourage migration from the countryside. Rural migrant families face challenges amidst the new urban opportunities.
Photo credit: 
Sarah Lin Bhatia

East Asia's demographic landscape is rapidly changing and comparative academic research is crucial to help guide well-informed decisions in the many policy areas that are affected, such as security, economics, and immigration. From January 20 to 21, the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (Shorenstein APARC) gathered subject experts from numerous fields for two days of lively and productive presentations and dialogue to help identify key research issues and questions for its new, three-year research initiative on this significant subject.

Shorenstein APARC held a public panel discussion on January 20, featuring eight scholars from across the United States and Asia. The issue of aging featured prominently in their presentations, as did fertility rates and immigration. A full audio recording of the panel discussion is available on the Shorenstein APARC website and summaries of the presentations follow below. A closed-session workshop took place the next day, the discussions from which will serve as the foundation for future programs and publications related to the research initiative.

January 20 Panel Discussion Presentations

The link between demography and security is more tenuous in East Asia than in other parts of the world, suggested Brian Nichiporuk, a political scientist with the RAND Corporation. Nichiporuk discussed possible policy responses to demographic change in Japan, North and South Korea, the Russian Federation, and China. He suggested, for example, that Japan's new maritime security focus is related to perceived economic and political competition from China, which is magnified by its domestic demographic concerns.

Michael Sutton, a visiting fellow with the East-West Center in Washington, DC, stated that Japan's aging population would remain a major policy issue for the next 20–30 years. He emphasized that the policy challenges posed by this phenomena are complicated by the role that the United States plays in the regional security structure, and also by the growing dominance of China and the history that it shares with Japan. Nonetheless, maintained Sutton, despite the obvious challenges, it is possible for Japan and the other countries facing this demographic issue to successfully adapt.

Social attitudes and policy in East Asia do not favor immigration, as they do in European countries such as Spain and Italy, suggested John Skrentny, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego. Skrentny focused his talk on low-skill immigrant workers in South Korea and Japan, noting that these two countries, which began receiving workers in the 1970s and 1980s, commonly associate immigrants with social disruption. According to Skrentny, immigration policy is often tied to economics and tends to favor co-ethnic workers.

Chong-En Bai
, chair of the Department of Economics at Tsinghua University, discussed numerous economic policy implications and responses related to demographic change in China. He noted areas where successful policies have been adopted but challenges still remain, including savings and investment, labor and urbanization, pension, healthcare, and long-term care. Bai described, for example, how the children of rural migrants now have access to urban schools, but that they still face the logistical challenge of having to travel back to their home provinces to take college entrance examinations.

Examining demographic change and health improvements is essential to understanding the significant economic growth in East Asia over the past several decades, emphasized David Bloom, chair of the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard University. He noted the success of East Asian countries in lowering their infant mortality rates through investment in public health improvements, such as sanitation and vaccination. Bloom suggested that these and other past successful policy mechanisms have run their course, and that it is now imperative to find ways to address the region's key demographic issue of aging.

Naohiro Ogawa, director of the Population Research Institute at Nihon University, described findings from the National Transfer Accounts (NTA) project, an international effort to gauge economic flows across age groups. He discussed the pressure placed on Japan's working-age population by the increasing cost of caring for children and the elderly, as well as the challenges and possibilities related to having a large, healthy, aging population. Ogawa noted that institutional responses to demographic change, such as increasing the retirement age and adopting more open immigration policy, have moved slowly in Japan.

Andrew Mason, a professor of economics at the University of Hawai'i, Manoa, also utilized NTA data to make predictions about East Asia's economic future. He proposed that the amount of human capital, such as the money that parents spend on the education of their children, is likely to grow quite rapidly. He also suggested that financial wealth in East Asia is likely to increase significantly as the populations of its countries age. Finally, he suggested that the current trend of regional economic growth would continue, although at a somewhat steadier rate. Mason qualified his predictions with questions, such as whether the return on investment in education would be commensurate with what is spent.

James Raymo, a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, described a wide array of findings about changes in fertility and family structure in Japan and their connections, as well as possible policy implications. Raymo discussed trends in marriage, childbearing, divorce, non-marital cohabitation, and the participation of women in the labor force. He pointed to gaps in current research, and suggested possible linkages to research on other demographic trends, such as Japan's aging population.