How Can China Solve its Old Age Security Problem? The Interaction between Pension, SOE and Financial Market Reform

33 Pages Posted: 14 Oct 2001


Like most countries, China faces a rapidly aging population. In fact, China is aging more rapidly than practically any other country. In 1990 only 9% of China's population was over the age of 65, but by 2030 this proportion will more than double, to 22%. More than a quarter of the world's old people will live in China by 2030. And the absolute number of workers will actually decline, as fertility rates are below replacement levels. While population aging is a long run phenomenon, it has become apparent even in the short run, as social security deficits become larger and more widespread every year. Moreover, these rapidly expanding pension obligations are especially troublesome in China because, until recently, they were a liability of state enterprises and a major obstacle to enterprise restructuring.

The Chinese government is well aware of the looming social security crisis and is determined to do something about it. Prefunding and unifying a fragmented system are at the heart of its projected reforms. The plan is to set up individual accounts for each worker, with funds that are productively invested. This is similar to reforms that have been sweeping Latin America, Eastern Europe and are now being considered in the United States. Besides making the system more fiscally sustainable and avoiding peak contribution rates, prefunding can be used to increase saving that is committed for long term investments and pension funds can be used as engines of financial market development and corporate governance.

However, in China these reforms are retarded by three key factors: 1) transition costs must be covered in any move toward prefunding, and the Chinese government is still trying to figure out how to accomplish this; 2) the current social security system is characterized by fragmentation and decentralized administration, which lead to principal-agent/moral hazard issues that make it more difficult to cover transition costs, decrease early retirement and increase compliance; 3) the funds that have accumulated have not been invested in diversified portfolios by private competitive management and have not earned a high rate of return.

This paper focuses on these three problems as well as the complex interactions between pension, financial market and SOE reform.

Part I describes the historical background of old age security in China - how it was provided during the cultural revolution, how this became inappropriate as China moved toward a market economy, and the steps that were taken by the government during the 1980's and early 1990's to resolve this inconsistency. Part II describes the new multi-pillar system, including a large prefunded defined contribution component, which was adopted, in principle, in the mid-1990's. Part III analyzes three key implementation problems that remain to be solved - the transition cost conundrum, the tensions inherent in unifying a fragmented system, and the difficulty in as well as the critical importance of investing productively and earning a high rate of return on the funds. We summarize the bold steps that the government has announced during the past few months (2001) to link pension, financial market and SOE reform. How these plans will be effectuated remains to be seen.

Suggested Citation

James, Estelle, How Can China Solve its Old Age Security Problem? The Interaction between Pension, SOE and Financial Market Reform. Available at SSRN: or

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