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I'm writing an Alternate History Timeline. In that timeline, the Self-Strengthening Movement implemented by the Qing Dynasty actually works. As a result, the Qing Dynasty is able to modernize, fight off the colonial powers, and stabilize its country. The Boxer Rebellion is avoided along with the Xinhai Revolution. Japan never invades China and the Chinese Civil War is avoided. Without the Civil War, Mao Zedong never gains power, so there isn't any One-Child Policy, Great Famine, and Cultural Revolution either.

How large can modern China's population get in this case? Currently, China has 1.4 billion people and got surpassed by India in population. In an alternate timeline with a luckier Qing Empire, China would have a lot more people than it has currently. Although an advanced economy will cause birth rates to eventually decline anyway.

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    $\begingroup$ Are you assuming self-sufficiency, or is importing food permitted? At what tech level? Rule of thumb for medieval tech level is you can maintain self-sufficiency up to around 180 people/mile^2, so about two thirds of a billion people in the area that China currently claims; call this a reasonable lower bound. The population density of modern Hong Kong is about 100x higher than that, but imports resources, is at a higher tech level, and is unlikely sustainable; so call 66 billion people a reasonable upper bound. $\endgroup$
    – addaon
    Commented May 5 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ @addaon I said modern China and the point of divergence is during the 1860s. $\endgroup$
    – Rhymehouse
    Commented May 5 at 17:53
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    $\begingroup$ Right. But modern China can not sustainably support 1.4 billion people; calorie closure is based on an oil-based economy, which all evidence points to being resource (and thus time) limited. So would your answer today be the maybe 0.7 - 1.0 B people China can support indefinitely today, the 1.4 B people that it actually supports, or the 2 - 3 B people it could support today with a small future window before collapse? I suspect the former number (which hasn't changed much for quite a while) and the third number (which has probably been pretty stable since Haber-Bosch process) are pretty stable. $\endgroup$
    – addaon
    Commented May 5 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ It is likely that China will peak earlier and with smaller population, but would be much richer at that point. Perhaps take Japanese curves and apply to Chinese starting numbers. $\endgroup$
    – alamar
    Commented May 5 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ It's not a matter of land, it's a matter of energy production for agriculture. Once Fusion Power gets developed, they won't be limited anymore. $\endgroup$ Commented May 5 at 22:30

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How many people can China support depends on the meaning of support.

The People's Republic is the world's largest food importer; it imports food worth about 130 to 140 billion dollars per year.

This means that if importing food is included in the meaning of support, then the People's Republic can support quite a lot of people. On the other hand, if food imports are not included in the word support, then the People's Republic already has more people than it can feed.

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  • $\begingroup$ Is it safe to assume food is only imported because the country is physically incapable of producing the necessary amount of food? OP's version of China sounds potentially quite isolationist, I imagine a few centuries of that mentality could motivate more/better land utilization if this alternate version is thriving today. $\endgroup$
    – talrnu
    Commented May 6 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ @talrnu: A large part of the territory of the People's Republic is desert -- Taklamakan and Gobi. Tibet is a high-altitude plateau with very limited agricultural potential. They are actually quite good at using their available agricultural land. I agree that some improvement may be possible, but I am sceptical that it would be a large improvement. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented May 6 at 22:53
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China still would need energy to create fertilizer via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haber_process to keep all those people fed and prevent instability.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_proven_oil_reserves China is number 13 by oil reserves and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_coal_reserves 4th by coal reserves. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetic_fuel) It could be pretty independent regarding energy imports for a while. The problem is that during the great leap into catastrophe loads of areas were deforested.

https://environmentalchina.history.lmu.build/forests-and-wildlife-in-chinese-history/deforestation-in-socialist-china/ https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/02/27/china-xi-agriculture-tax/ A great population would destroy these fields at the same rate as the expanding middle class does today.

Good luck finding ways around this. At chinas scale, no policy is easy to implement and uphold.

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