The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, January 19, 2023

It is Thursday, January 19, 2023.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

China Has Become Old Before It Has Become Rich: China in Crisis as Birth Rates Drop Lower Than Death Rates For First Time in Decades

The big headline news in recent days comes down to the fact that China has for the first time in recent history, lost net population. That might sound like a rather insignificant issue, but actually it points to one of the most important worldview issues of our time. Birth rate, fertility rate, what is sometimes known as total fertility rate demonstrates the worldview of a people more than anything else.

Now, when it comes to the economy, the economy reveals national priorities, individual activities, what we really value, what we really believe about the meaning and purpose of life. So there are those who would say, “If you want to know what people really believe, watch how they spend, watch how they invest, watch how they do business.”

But Christians understand there’s something even prior to commerce, and that is the family, and at the heart of the family is the husband and the wife, and that should imply the father and the mother, be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. So the family is pre-political and as a pre-political institution, there is nothing more important than the propagation of the population, the having of children.

Now, we’ll be looking at this in a Christian theological perspective, which has to do with God receiving glory by an increased number of those who bear his image. But there’s more to it as we look at the headlines than the secular media are here acknowledging. One of the things we’re going to see as we consider this most recent news out of China, is the fact that there are many in the West who say, “This is going to have vast economic consequences.” And indeed, as we shall see it will, but the consequences here are far more dramatic than anything that can be measured in terms of economic statistics.

The main impact of this may be felt on the ground by the secular society as matters related to politics and economics. But in terms of the Christian worldview, the most important issue here is morality. Now, we’re going to be talking about population issues quite a bit, not only on today’s edition of The Briefing, but future editions as well.

One of the reasons we will do so, is because one of the main prophets of doom. When it comes to the so-called population explosion, Paul Ehrlich has just recently written a memoir and the national media are giving him attention. That is a story into itself. Then that’ll have to wait for a future day.

Right now, China is in the headlines and for very good reason. I am old enough to remember when the dire predictions were nearly universal around the media and political circles, that the big problem threatening humanity is that China’s population, along with India and some other countries was out of control. The Earth would not be able to sustain the population, and yet right now, the reality is all the headlines are saying the big problem, the big crisis looming over humanity is now that China’s birth rate has fallen, there are so many issues for us to consider.

First of all, let’s just look at what the headlines are actually telling us. The report from the Associated Press puts it this way, “China’s population shrank for the first time in decades last year as its birth rate plunged, official figures showed on Tuesday adding to pressure on leaders to keep the economy growing despite an aging workforce and at a time of rising tension with the US.”

The next sentence, “Despite the official numbers, some experts believe China’s population has been in decline for a few years, a dramatic turn in a country that once sought to control such growth through a one child policy.” Indeed, it did. That’s another issue we’re going to have to consider on today’s edition of The Briefing. It must be an important part of our analysis.

First of all, just the numbers. What are we talking about here? What we’re talking about a very significant shortfall in bursts from one year to the other in China. And in China, as you know, we’re talking about a massive population. The numbers are so big that it takes some rounding just to be able to get our heads around them.

Number one, what was the shortfall in bursts in China? About 1 million. Now, why is that such an urgent issue? It is because you need to think of populations in terms of two lines. One, is the number of births and the other is the number of deaths.

Here’s the point. Last year in China, a significantly greater number of deaths than births, but that’s not the only issue just in terms of the numbers. The other big number in China is the increase in the median age. As we often remarked, the intelligence communities in the West have been debating whether or not China could get rich before it grew old.

Now, the bottom line is clear. China has grown old and it has not grown rich. Now, some of this is in relative terms. The fact is that most Chinese right now are significantly better off than they were say a hundred years ago, but by no measure comparable to what has taken place in the West. And furthermore, the Chinese Communist Party understands that its credibility and hold, over the entire Chinese society has depended upon the promise that by its autocratic rule, it would bring greater riches, greater expansion of the economy, a greater number of consumer goods to the Chinese people, and there was a bargain involved in that too.

The Chinese Communist Party basically said to the Chinese people, “We will hold all the power, but we will bring you economic benefits.” And at least for a matter of decades, that has basically worked in favor of the Chinese Communist Party. But even as you’re looking at these numbers released and acknowledged by the Chinese autocracy just in the last few days, the reality is, that this does threaten the entire communist regime in China. It threatens its economy, and the reason for that is deeply biblical.

We’ll think about that more in just a moment, but let’s go back and make sure we get the numbers right.

According to the official numbers, in 2022, China experienced 9.56 million births. Again, the shortfall of 1 million bursts. Here’s the other significant number. Deaths ticked up to 10.41 million. So if you’re in a society that registers more deaths than births, then you are in a society that is trending towards growing not only smaller in population, but relatively weaker and assuredly poorer.

Now, this may sound to some people including to some conservative biblical minded Christians as counterintuitive. Wouldn’t it be true that if there are fewer people, then those fewer people would have a greater share of the wealth? The answer to that is profoundly no. And even if it sounds counterintuitive, it is again, deeply biblical.

It comes down to this, economies are only healthy and standards of living only rise if the population is increasing and the economy is experiencing growth. Let’s also put it another way. If you’re looking at a population, and let’s just say in the case of China will round it to 1 billion people, well, we might say that thus all those 1 billion people, every 1 billion of them should contribute one, 1 billion to the economy and should take out one, 1 billion of the economy, but it doesn’t work that way for a country.

Frankly, it doesn’t work that way in your family. For one thing, just consider your family and your extended family. There are people too young to make a meaningful economic contribution, and there are people too old to be making a meaningful financial or economic contribution. People in the middle, basically in the working years of adulthood, they have to produce most of the economic energy. That’s just the way any economy works.

A healthy society is leveraged towards the future, that is saying this generation is going to work hard so that the next generation can build on that foundation. That’s again, something you just recognized from the pattern of biblical revelation and the logic of creation order. Now, if you want to know how expensive children are, we’ll, just ask parents. They can tell you. But here’s something that’s also true in a way that was not true in previous epochs of human history.

The old actually are more expensive now than the young. The longer people live beyond their peak economic contribution years, the more expensive they are. Now, again, from a biblical worldview, we don’t measure person’s worth by their contribution to the economy, but rather by the fact that every single one of them is made in God’s image.

The Chinese Communist Party, as we will remind ourselves, doesn’t think that way, but let’s just think in terms of the numbers again, because this is good for us to think about.

You have children, let’s say that they grow up from the day of their birth until say, somewhere in the mid-twenties when they become net economic contributors. Now until then, again, just ask parents and just ask the parents of say, college students. They’ll tell you they are not net economic contributors during those early years going into the twenties. Now, little footnote here, so many of those young people are not becoming economically productive and responsible early enough, but that’s another issue. The delay of adulthood is another edition of The Briefing.

We’re just looking now at the fact that at least on the front end of life, for most people it’s something like, let’s just say 20 to 25 years and then after that lots of economic contribution. But what about the final stage of life?

Well, if you have retirement, say at age 65, let’s just use that, and the average person is living to about age 90. Well, you could say that’s another 25 years, yes, but it could turn out to be a lot more expensive than the first 25 years of life, and as the lifespan continues to expand, well, let’s just say people aren’t being born younger, but they are living to be older. Well, then you might say, “Well, would the United States, then be in something of the same situation as China? People here are living even longer, and if that stage of life is becoming even more expensive, then wouldn’t we be in big demographic trouble?” The answer is, we well could be, but that is likely to come by the end of the 21st century.

Now, that comes with massive consequences, and one of the things we need to know is that an anti-natalist or anti baby philosophy is not only something that is sociologically and economically dangerous, it’s also something that’s profoundly unbiblical, contrary to the very first chapter of scripture. So the United States and other Western countries are going to face the same kind of challenge, but it is arriving sooner elsewhere.

The places we need to look right now include several Asian nations, South Korea and Japan, among them, maybe especially Japan, but at least Japan is in better economic shape in the short term to deal with this than China is, by far the situation in Japan very sad, but Japan is at least at present a fairly rich economy and it can afford to pay these bills at least for some time.

But as we’re going to see even in today’s edition of The Briefing on an entirely different story, France is having to look at renegotiating its retirement age because it simply can’t afford it to stay where it is right now. It needs more people to work longer in the lifespan in order to pay for the society’s social safety net. But we need to look at some of the statements coming out of these headlines from China and understand just how immediately the worldview issues arise.

For example, consider this report from The New York Times, “Chinese officials have tried for years to slow down the arrival of this moment, loosening a one child policy and offering incentives to encourage families to have children. None of these policies worked. Now, facing a population decline coupled with a long-running rise in life expectancy, the country’s being thrust into a demographic crisis that will have consequences not just for China and its economy, but for the world.”

Now, one of the things I want us to know is that there is an acknowledgement that China has been trying to tamper with its population for a long time, but here’s the deadly thing, and from a Christian worldview perspective, the devastating thing. Just consider the fact that the Chinese Communist Party is officially atheistic, not only atheistic, but by extension, materialistic. It believes that the only reality is material reality, thus human beings are just cogs in a machine.

Human beings are not made in God’s image because they believe there is no God. There’s no inherent human dignity because they don’t believe there’s anyone to grant that dignity, and so what you have on the part of the Chinese Communist Party is a dictatorial autocracy that has basically tried to keep itself in power and to establish its international standing by manipulating its population. But here’s the strange thing, the Chinese got the situation exactly wrong, which is another example of why autocracy is so dangerous.

China’s great danger was not that it would have too many people, but as they now know that they would have too few, but the Chinese Communist Party actually put in place in the 1970s, the policy that would just refer to in this article, the one child only policy. And that meant that the Chinese Communist Party was actually not only forcing contraception on the Chinese people, allowing couples to have only one child, but they also practiced what we now know and as well documented to have been forced abortions and even in infanticide.

They were actually going into the homes and into the neighborhoods in China with communist party officials considering how many children were in each home, how many have been born to the couple and sanctioning the couple, and in some cases forcing abortion, forcing sterilization, and even practicing the murder of children already born.

Somewhere about a decade ago, China realized it had made a grave mistake and there were consequences to that, that include the fact that right now the imbalance between adult men and adult women in China is absolutely devastating, and that is because China, like so many other Asian nations, has a market preference for having boys rather than girls, and thus, if a couple could have only one child, they wanted to have a boy inordinately, and that meant sex-selection abortion, and it also meant the disappearance of many baby girls. But what does it mean right now with adults?

It means that as of the year 2018 in China, it has estimated that there were 34 million more men than women. Just consider that. 34 million men who have no hope of ever being married, 34 million men in excess to the number of women. In most societies, the number by natural population distribution is slightly to the contrary. In most societies, by the time you look at the adult population, there is a larger number of women than of men. Part of this is just the birth distribution, and then there are other factors including war and well, all kinds of activities that tend to reduce the male population rather than the female population.

In any event, any society that has 34 million more males than females, is one that got there by some horrifyingly immoral means. But that just points to something else. If you mess up creation order to this extent, you can say as a government, “Okay, the one child only policy didn’t work, so let’s make it a two child only policy.” But by the way, that didn’t work at all, and so the Chinese Communist Party is now saying, “Please have babies.” But the Chinese people are not responding with the babies.

Furthermore, by the way, we now know that the Chinese Communist Party that at one point was invading the privacy of marriage to say, “You can’t have another child.” Now, they are invading the privacy of marriage in a government sense by going to people and saying, “Why haven’t you had a baby yet?” As I said a few moments ago, in terms of the revelation of a culture or of an individual or a couple’s worldview, there is nothing that is more indicative than the understanding of the role and promise of children.

Any society that sees at any point, children to be a problem rather than a blessing, is a society that has embraced its own destruction and that defines China right now. They are now reaping what they have sown, which is decades of telling couples not to have children. Evidently, couples and individuals got the message. The Chinese Communist Party in the government apparatus told people in China, the goal should be building the economy, having a good and satisfying adult life, and the Chinese people got the message.

A New York Times report cites Rachel Zhang identified as a 33-year-old photographer in Beijing who, quote “Decided before she married her husband that they would not have children.” The Times tells us, “The couple have embraced a lifestyle known as ‘Double Income, No Kids.’ That’s DINK a shorthand for couples in China who have decided to remain childless.” By the way, that DINK designation has been used in the US and in the West as well.

Ms. Zhang said to the Times, “I am firm about this, I have never had the desire to have children all along.” The Times, then says, “The growing cost of raising a child and finding an apartment in a good school district have hardened her resolve.” Well, again, that is backfill. In moral language, that is stating, “I really don’t want to have a child, and so I’m going to tell you why, and I’m going to cite economics. I’m going to cite the difficulty of getting into the right neighborhood and the right school.” But the fact is that human beings throughout all of human history have found a way to reproduce and to make whatever sacrifices were necessary to make certain that their children grew to adulthood. It was never easy.

Of course, it’s not easy now. That’s why parents need an enormous amount of respect and support and why the entire society needs to recognize that if parents, mothers and fathers don’t do their jobs, the society can’t succeed.

To consider how serious this is in terms of damage and threat to China, one major demographer simply put it this way, “I don’t think there is a single country that has gone as low as China in terms of fertility rate and then bounced back to the replacement rate.”

Part II

No, This is Primarily a Moral Problem: Evaluating the West’s Response to China’s Population Drop

But as we think of the worldview significance, I also want to consider how this news is being considered and evaluated, not so much in China, but in the West. In financial terms, we would look to news sources such as from the UK, the Economist and the Financial Times, and most importantly in the United States from The Wall Street Journal, and trust me, they are all interested.

The headline in yesterday’s print edition of The Wall Street Journal was this, “China’s Shrinking Population Compounds Growth Concerns.” Well, what are the growth concerns? Those are economic concerns, and you see the same issue, the same analysis coming up again and again in the West.

This is a huge problem. It’s a huge economic problem. It’s going to slow down not only the economic growth of China, but it threatens the economic growth of the rest of the planet as well. China has become the great factory floor by some economic designation when it comes to making things. If China has a huge economic problem, then the rest of the world is going to have a huge economic problem.

Now, my problem with that, is that looking at this as mostly an economic condition or an economic threat, that itself is just woefully morally inadequate. An editorial published also in yesterday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal concluded with these words, “China was able to become the world’s second-largest economy by unleashing the entrepreneurship of its people via economic reform. Mr. Xi’s desire for top-down political control has put that progress in jeopardy at a moment, it needs more market reform to cope with a shrinking population.”

Now, from a biblical analysis, let’s just look at it this way. Yes, there will be a profound economic effect in terms of the shrinking population. Yes, this threatens the entire social safety net. It threatens the entire economy of China and by extension the economy of the rest of the world as well, and shrinking populations elsewhere just expanded the problem.

Here’s where, biblically, we need to keep in mind that the Bible’s very honest about economics and economic effects, about the distinction between economic prosperity and economic deprivation. The Bible’s also very honest about presenting economic prosperity is a lot better than a lack of that prosperity, and the Bible also ties it to moral and political issues. It ties it to moral commands. Obedience leads to prosperity, disobedience leads to a lack of that prosperity.

But here’s where Christians understand that at the more basic level, it comes down to creation order and the command of God be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. If you see human beings as the problem, then you are going to end up with a very deadly situation. Not only a no growth economy or even an economy that is in decline, but more dangerously, a world that sees human beings as the problem rather than as the solution. Sees more human beings as a threat, rather than seeing every single human being as a promise.

In the secular press, there are also many who are saying, “Look, China has compounding problems all at once.” Not to mention its absolute no COVID policy that was answered by an absolute non-policy on COVID that is led to an estimated tens of thousands of deaths and also an economic threat to China.

Putting all of this together, the front page of the business section of The New York Times yesterday declared in a very big headline, “China looks to future after economic washout.” Just to go back to this theme. The big issue here is not that economics isn’t important, but that the economic problems point to more basic problems, creation-order problems, and if no one else on planet Earth understands this, Christians had better. And that’s why Christians are not only by biblical command pro-natalist, that is celebrating babies, but we also have to recognize that this is not just about human prosperity and the good of human civilizations.

This is about the demonstration of obedience to God’s command that reveals the glory of God himself in every single newborn baby’s face.

Part III

Retirement Is Considered Sacred? Emmanuel Macron Fights Losing Battle of Increasing France’s Retirement Age

But I did mention France a few moments ago. In France is also in the headlines and about a similar issue, the situation’s nowhere near is dire is what we see in China, nor is the French government a communist government, but the French president, Emmanuel Macron is facing a real political crisis, and frankly, it’s one that at least in terms of political momentum, it looks like he’s going to lose.

Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, is trying to raise the normative retirement age in France from 62 to 65. Now, just keep in mind that until a few years ago that retirement age in France wasn’t 62, it was 60. France has a very liberal welfare state. It’s been proud of that, but the bottom line is it can’t afford that liberal welfare state, and in particular with people living longer and with that last stage of life being extended, and we need to celebrate that. The reality is France can’t afford a normative retirement age for people. It’s 62, but here’s the deal. The French people are refusing to go along with raising that age.

Now, in the most recent proposal, Emmanuel Macron has only suggested extending it by two years to age 64, at least as a median step, but the outrage from the French people has been, well, rather politically overwhelming, so much so that most political analysts aren’t giving the French president much chance of getting his reform through. And what would that mean? Well, it means deficit spending. It means government borrowing. It means the government spending far more than it has and putting the entire French government and its welfare state at risk, or to put it another way, downloading the charges to successive generations. That is not only a demonstration of generational selfishness, it’s just a reminder of how a society can get things so backwards.

For example, The New York Times article cites a senior research fellow at a think tank as saying, “Retirement is considered sacred.” Meaning, it’s considered sacred in France. Well, if retirement is considered sacred, that’s a commentary unto itself. If there are too many people retired and too few people working, guess what? Well, here’s an announcement for you. That system’s not going to work.

Or you could put it another way. If a society decides to set aside the entire biblical worldview and to completely ignore and disobey the command of God found in the very opening chapters and verses of scripture, then inevitably it’s going to face problems. That’s an understatement. It’s going to face a problem that will threaten its entire existence, and that’s exactly what China is looking like.

Well, let’s understand this in biblical terms. If this pattern of thinking occurs anywhere, it will come with the same result. If you see babies as the problem, then wake up. You are the problem.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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