Foshan plans for end of ‘demographic dividend’

Foshan has just updated its population plan. Setting goals that stretch until 2030, Foshan has no ambitions to become a “mega city” of more than 10 million people, like Dongguan does. Yet it will continue to grow in a measured pace and cross the 8.1 million mark in the next three years. 

This equates to a healthy growth of 6% from the last time a census was conducted in 2017, or more than 450,000 people. That is an acceleration, as it took the city seven years to grow by roughly the same number, in 2010-2017.

Why isn’t Foshan as ambitious as Dongguan? It is a question that the population development blueprint does not answer. An educated guess is because Foshan does not have as much available land as Dongguan. Moreover, Foshan is doing everything it can to integrate more closely with Guangzhou. “Guangfo” is a description used for many joint projects, such as the Intercity Railway line connecting its six main townships to the Guangzhou South station. 

Foshan’s city leaders also see challenges ahead, due to an ageing population, which is why they are keen to manage this next phase of population growth carefully, to keep future economic and social development stable.

Looking back, the first two decades of the 21st century have been good times for Foshan. “The population structure and the distribution of the population have changed significantly,” the city’s planning document says, understatedly. Since China joined the WTO in 2001, Foshan’s export-led industrial economy has been growing strongly, attracting a large migrant population to its labor-intensive manufacturing economy. 

However, Foshan has been no exception to the country’s overall demographic trend of “greying”, due to the one-child policy. In fact, although the city has a bigger percentage of its overall (resident) population engaged in the workforce – thanks to migrant labor – its registered population (those with a hukou, or household registration) has slipped slightly behind the provincial ratio of two youth for every elderly, with the ratio currently standing at 9:5. Since the 1990s, the registered population has starkly witnessed the effects of the one-child policy in the rising proportion of the elderly. 

The difference between the resident and registered populations is striking not only in age, but in gender, too: there are 118 males for every 100 females in the resident population, while the registered population is only 97:100. The prevalence of manufacturing here has ensured demand is higher for male workers. 

Foshan, unsurprisingly, see the need to attract more migrants. The city’s leadership is determined to do this with a combination of efficient urban planning, improvement of public services, and integration with the rest of the region under the Greater Bay Area plan. On the longer-term plan, from now until 2030, nearly all growth will come in the expansion of the registered population, from 4.75 million to about 5.7 million. 

That won’t work on its own, however. Foshan also plans to give a hukou to more of the existing migrant-worker population. This is not being done out of charity. Foshan’s working-age population is expected to peak in 2022, after which the era of the “demographic dividend” will gradually fade away.

The introduction of the two-child policy will also help. But this brings its own challenges in terms of demand for new public services, especially in education, medical treatment and social security. As it does for the environment. Foshan is a highly urbanized city, with land utilization close to 40%, well past the 30% international warning line. Moreover, too much of this land is still occupied by “low value-added industries,” according to city planners, who say that village-level industrial parks with “low economic benefit” account for one-third of total industrial land. Pollution levels remain unacceptably high.

The city is undoubtedly undergoing an intense process of economic adjustment, requiring a substantial upgrade in its industrial development model. This is being pursued with gusto, and will generate higher demand for skilled workers, especially in professional services. Attracting that talent is a challenge for the Foshan leadership.

Foshan’s city planners say they are on it. The population planning document sets the following priorities: 

  • Identify those among the non-registered population with long service, strong employability, and adaptability to change that can fit into the city’s plans for industrial transformation;
  • Expand and improve the residence permit system;
  • Reform the housing system;
  • Increase the supply of educational resources and meet the needs of high-quality industrial workers. 

Foshan is particularly keen, like all the other Greater Bay Area cities, to attract talent in the fields of science and technology. This will require strengthening protection of intellectual property rights. The city will also increase its investment in training, paying special attention to upgrading its vocational education systems. And, like the neighboring cities, Foshan is offering incentives in housing and other means to attract the best and brightest.

What will Foshan look like in 2030? Its population planners envisage a city with a more balanced demographic profile, strongly on the path of sustainable development.

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