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China is concerned about much more than India outgrowing its population

New data this week said that China will soon no longer be the world's most populous country.
China and India are the world's population behemoths — but their demographics are very different.
China and India are the world's population behemoths — but their demographics are very different.Max Butterworth / NBC News

BEIJING — Size isn't everything — it's what you do with it that counts.

That was Beijing's indignant reaction after news that India, its neighbor and fierce rival, will soon overtake China as the world's most populous country.

Facing a demographic crisis that could undermine the government's bid to rival the United States, Chinese officials and state media balked at Western coverage of new data projecting India edging ahead of mainland China by the middle of this year, if it hasn't already.

Both will have almost 1.43 billion people, according to the United Nations World Population Dashboard — well more than a third of the planet's 8 billion-plus people between them.

They aren't just geopolitical rivals; the nuclear-armed neighbors are locked in a dispute that has seen large troop build-ups along their mountainous, 2,000-mile-plus border, and clashes including melees with clubs, sticks and stones.

News of the population ranking made headlines around the world. But prominent voices in China accused the West of using it as another excuse to "bad mouth" Beijing as the latest episode in the long-running struggle with the U.S. and its allies.

Chinese officials and state media said America and the West were focusing only on population size, rather than education, industrial output and economic clout — the last one seeing China dwarf India several times over.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin stressed that it was important "to look at not just the size, but also the quality of its population."

“The population is important, so is talent,” he told a daily briefing this week.

The state broadcaster CCTV said China, which the World Bank credits with lifting almost 800 million people out of poverty in the past 40 years, was being “slandered” despite “creating a miracle of sustainable and stable economic development with a huge population.”

“Such hype lacks a basic understanding of the law of population development,” it said.

India is set to overtake China as the world's most populous country by the end of June, UN estimates showed on April 19, 2023, posing huge challenges to a nation with creaking infrastructure and insufficient jobs for millions of young people.
A market in Chennai, India, on Wednesday.Satish Babu / AFP - Getty Images

What matters to China is consumer and investor confidence, "so it is not hard to see why Chinese officials are pushing back on the argument that a population decline spells economic decline," said Dimitar Gueorguiev, an associate professor who teaches Chinese politics at Syracuse University.

To China, being the most populous nation "doesn’t count for anything" in and of itself, he told NBC News in an email. What's important is "to be seen as a developing, modern, and functional country."

On the streets of Beijing, the mood was similar.

"Population does not equal national power," said Zhang Han, 29, a business student from the eastern province of Shandong. "The U.S. and Japan have smaller populations, but it doesn’t mean they’re not strong powers."

Retired teacher Liu Quan, 57, said he doesn't care about the population news at all. "We just want peace" between the quarreling neighbors, he said. "I believe both India and China don’t want conflict."

Despite the vying population statistics, China is far more wealthy than India. After pursuing economic liberalization in the 1970s, its economy has mushroomed to become the second largest in the world behind the U.S., with a gross domestic product almost seven times that of India, which is placed fifth.

Both countries face their own challenges.

Once growing exponentially, China's aging population fell last year for the first time in six decades. This raises serious questions about the ability of this titan — one on which the global economy has come to rely — to maintain, let alone enhance, its economic status.

China once tried to check its population growth with the now defunct one-child policy. Now it's desperately trying to arrest a falling birthrate that means that — as in many Western countries — a shrinking young population will struggle to support a growing number of retirees. That's what partly stagnated the economy of neighboring Japan, despite it already being a high-income country.

India, by contrast, has not achieved the same lightspeed development in manufacturing and infrastructure. Its population is younger but more of them are unemployed or in extreme poverty. Only 2.2% of workers between the ages of 15 and 59 have received formal vocational training, according to government figures. In China, 26% of the workforce are classified as "skilled."

Despite a booming technology sector, the sheer size of India's population means it has been struggling to create enough jobs to keep up with demand.

The Times of India newspaper described this as "a ticking social bomb" in an editorial reacting to the population news. "Only by facilitating much, much better education and opportunities for our young can we realize the hope of an 'Indian century,'" it said.

A survey conducted by the U.N. in conjunction with this week's report found that many Indians listed economic issues as their top concern when thinking about population change, followed by worries about the environment, health and human rights.

Those findings suggest that "population anxieties have seeped into large portions of the general public," even though the numbers should be seen as a sign of developmen, rather than a cause for anxiety, Andrea Wojnar, the United Nations Population Fund’s representative for India, said in a statement.

If China is concerned about giving up the top spot, India doesn't seem entirely thrilled about claiming it.

Jace Zhang reported from Beijing, and Alex Smith reported from London.