What Role do Demographics in Russia and China Play in Escalating Global Conflict?

Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russia has invaded Ukraine. Many commentators have wondered what this means for China’s ambitions in Taiwan. Some believe Putin’s goals are personal. According to this camp, Putin is getting older and is worried about his legacy. To be a great Russian leader on par with Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, they assert, he must expand Russia’s border. They also point to Putin’s historical comments about the breakup of the Soviet Union. He called it the demise of “historical Russia.” Likewise, many believe Xi Jinping’s designs are imperialistic.

However, both nations have a well-documented history of nationalism and xenophobia. The Soviet Union was approximately 50% ethnic Russian. Following the collapse of the USSR, that percentage increased to 81% in the Russian Federation. According to the authors of The New Russian Nationalism, the ruling regime exploited feelings of nationalism and xenophobia after 1991. As a result, ethnonationalism increased inside Russia.

Then, the Kremlin’s adoption of nationalist rhetoric increased after the 2014 Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine. Putin sold the annexation of Crimea in nationalistic terms and continues to use these arguments as he extends the invasion. He often refers to Russian-speaking Ukrainians to justify the invasion.

Likewise, citizens of China display nationalistic and xenophobic emotions. In 2020 the Ministry of Justice attempted to issue new guidelines to allow high-income foreign nationals to live permanently in China. The policy was aimed at titans in technology, science, sports, and culture and would allow these individuals to work in China for some time. The backlash was immediate and severe on the Chinese social media platform Weibo and remained impregnable to positive propaganda from the regime.

According to Chauncey Jung’s writing for The Diplomat, Xi’s emphasis on “cultural confidence” beginning in 2016 exacerbated the problem of ethnonationalism in China. Jung writes, “Adding to the propaganda efforts promoting the country’s political system, the CCP’s messages have been actively instigating nationalism that shows little respect for other cultures around the world.” He notes that in 2017, a Chinese legislator tried to propose the elimination of black communities in the Guangdong province. China Central Television has also broadcast blatantly racist programming.

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With cultural themes that trend towards ethnonationalism, it is clear that any group that falls under the control of China or Russia that is not ethnically related will suffer from poor treatment and discrimination. However, conquering new populations might be a form of survival for these authoritarian regimes. In the next decade or two, both China and Russia will face severe demographic holes that will impact productivity and financial health in the near term. Adding population may be the only way they can keep their economies viable.

Russia lost nearly one million people between October 2020 and September 2021, a natural population loss not seen since the end of World War II. Losses in 2021 cap a 15-year trend of population decline. While the U.N. projects the world population to grow by nearly 2 billion by 2050, the agency predicts Russia’s will decline by 10 million. The problem originated in the early 90s when birth rates fell and mortality increased in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. Russia also has higher than average mortality rates among working-age men and declining life expectancy that predates the COVID-19 pandemic by several decades.

In an appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight at the end of February, former Navy Seal and best-selling author Jack Carr noted the 2014 book The Accidental Superpower predicted the invasion of Ukraine in eight years. Outside of Russia, Ukraine has the largest ethnic Russian population, and the book asserted Russia would need to incorporate this population to continue to exist. Carr said Russia is about two generations away from collapse based on its current population trajectory.

China is in a similar situation after decades of a one-child policy. Appearing on American Thought Leaders, Reggie Littlejohn explained how this policy created a demographic hole. Littlejohn runs a charity that saves baby girls in China and believes the regime cannot fix the problem. Because of the imbalance between surviving males and females in those generations, human trafficking is rising, and birth rates remain below replacement values. Even though China’s population is increasing, there is a shortage of young people. The increase skews heavily towards elderly residents living longer.

Clearly, there are ideological reasons for the current conflict and the potential emergence of new allies and axis blocs. The nationalism of countries like Russia and China is a perspective they hold in common with nations in the Middle East and other regions of Asia. It is diametrically opposed to the international fascism being pushed on the West by the World Economic Forum through “stakeholder capitalism” and environmental, social, and governance scores (ESG scores). Despite president Biden’s waxing poetic about defending democracy, there is no one at the table advocating for a traditional Western liberal democracy.

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However, the demographic challenges faced by Russia and China could make the conflicts we are currently seeing more intractable than ideological differences. With a few exceptions like Iran and North Korea, the West led the global order for decades using economic ties. It is worth asking why those ties are no longer binding. Perhaps it is because if the leaders in Russia and China are trying to prevent demographic collapse, imperial behavior and client states are the only way to do that.

Some have asserted China has already engaged in imperial behavior with Africa. Through Belt and Road initiatives, the CCP tied these nations to China. They understand the labor-intensive manufacturing China relied on to build wealth will need to transfer to African countries with growing populations where wages can remain low. Taking nations like Taiwan, Vietnam, and Japan by force while India aligned with Axis powers out of fear would provide China with a source for technical and professional staff to continue to innovate.

Russia’s goals may be far more fundamental. Taking Ukraine by force could provide agricultural stability and global shipping lanes. Because of their shared challenges, China may be more invested in Russia’s success in Ukraine as a model for the CCP’s success in their imperial aspirations. Countries do not solve demographic pressures using diplomacy; they are a matter of long-term viability for nations experiencing them.

The underlying issues in China and Russia could point to a protracted cold war and increasing competition for allies on the global stage. If the expansion of influence meets resistance, as China certainly would in the Pacific, demographic pressures could increase their willingness to engage in a hot war. All while our leaders worry about fighting the sun monster and making our military more “inclusive.” Aren’t you glad the adults are back in charge?


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