TIME

THE GRAY WAVE SET TO CRASH INTO CHINA

By 2029, China’s population will age into “unstoppable” decline. The country may face no greater threat
Li An Xiao, 85, and his wife swim with friends on Hainan Island, known as China’s Florida

A passing typhoon has just tickled southern China’s Hainan Island, churning the sea into angry peaks. One glance is enough for Li An Xiao and Zhao Zhi Ping to cancel their customary 7 a.m. swim, the kind of unspoken agreement that comes with half a century of happy marriage. Instead, they join dozens of other retirees performing calisthenics at the adjacent exercise park, where one silver-haired gent nonchalantly hangs upside down from the monkey bars.

Li was once a hydro-engineer in China’s arid northwestern province of Gansu. Today, the 85-year-old is enjoying a leisurely retirement with Zhao, 75, on the volcanic island that is Asia’s closest equivalent to Florida. Lunch at noon, a 3 p.m. dip in their apartment complex’s hot tub, perhaps a nap and, typhoon permitting, back to the beach for a sunset swim. “We love it here,” he says. “Just look at all the trees and flowers! The sea air means we’ve never felt healthier.”

An estimated 1.5 million retired snowbirds flock to Hainan from China’s frigid northern provinces every winter, and if current trends continue, the migratory pattern is set to expand rapidly. By 2050, 330 million Chinese will be over age 65. Good news perhaps for property owners in Hainan, but dire news for the prospects of the world’s second largest economy—and for those around the world who rely on it. “It’s the No. 1 economic problem for China going forward,” says Stuart Leckie, chairman of Stirling Finance Ltd., a Hong Kong–based pension-fund consulting

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