April 28, 2017

Will China Grow Old Before It Gets Rich?

China had one million more births in 2016 than in 2015, following the end of the one-child policy at the end of 2015.
China had one million more births in 2016 than in 2015, following the end of the one-child policy at the end of 2015.

One-child policy has proved a failure and is going to cause great problems in the future.

The People’s Republic of China has witnessed a remarkably rapid three-decade-long economic, political and military boom. This development has received a lot of attention from political scientists, economists and journalists who enjoy writing treatises (in their many interpretations) about China’s unobstructed rise to a superpower—and the 21st century has been deemed the Chinese century. This narrative is effective especially in comparison to the aging, declining and stagnating West, where leaders often think in four-year cycles. The leaders of China are not bothered by these “problems of democracy” and many admirers of Chinese progress have described its leadership as thought-through, determined, and focused on the distant future.
Although major problems in China’s financial system caused a sensation in 2015, denting this narrative, the following year China managed to trump (pun intended) the West and now the public debate is dominated by people singing the swansong of the post-Second World War Western political and economic system. In comparison to developments in the West, China feels like the epitome of stability and rationality, and that is how President Xi Jinping described his country at the World Economic Forum in Davos a few days before President Donald Trump’s inauguration. However, in one field of politics—population policy—the Chinese leadership has shown remarkable ignorance and inefficiency, which makes China’s rise to superpower status rather unlikely.
The main demographic problem for countries has traditionally been a lack of people because, prior to the 19th century, life expectancy in the conditions of an agrarian society with low technological development was between 20 and 30 years, half of all newborns died before the age of five, and the number of deaths per 1,000 people was around 30–40 in “good years”. Solomon, the archetype of a good ruler from the Old Testament, taught that “A king’s glory is the abundance of people, but the lack of subjects is the ruin of a ruler”.1
A different opinion was held by Robert Malthus in the late 18th century, whose infamous teachings claimed that an increase in population has a negative effect on a country’s development, literally eating up the resources of a society until saturation, after which starvation, disease and war bring the population down to a normal level. He described this process of increase and decrease as natural and universal. Karl Marx thought that Malthus’ theory about the ruling bourgeois social order was a way of presenting power relations as inevitable and irrefutable; Malthus was “a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes”. Marx believed that humans were in control of nature, not vice versa, and thus it was possible to create an economic production system that would help sustain all people.2
In China, at the time of the creation of the People’s Republic, a similar view was held by the ruling party. Mao answered “reactionary” criticism by saying: “It is a very good thing that China has a big population. Even if China’s population multiplies many times, she is fully capable of finding a solution; the solution is production.”3 The census of 1953, however, proved that, since the end of the civil war, China’s population had increased by about 10 million people per year, reaching 580 million.4 Also, the population increase surpassed the growth of agricultural production. This is how Mao reached the conclusion that population growth was dangerous, noting that the (re)production of people was characterised by “anarchism”. He expressed faith in the idea that there would be a way of creating a system of planned parenthood. During the Great Leap Forward campaign, launched at the end of the same decade, he convinced himself that as a result of agricultural reorganisation it would be possible to increase production to a sufficient extent that there would be no need to worry about population growth. Marx would have been proud. The famine of 1959–61—or, to use the euphemism employed by the authorities, the “three years of difficulty”—caused the death of some 18–32 million people.
After such a shock, the party and state started limiting births. Here they refrained from Maoist “strict and fast” campaigns and concentrated on educating people and offering necessary services to gradually change China’s traditional family model that valued an abundance of children. Many children were necessary in a traditional society with a high mortality rate, but communist China had been able to make notable advances in reducing mortality with a pause created by the Great Leap Forward). While between 1950 and 1955 the general mortality rate was 23.1 per 1,000 people per year, two decades later the figure had dropped to 9.3 deaths; life expectancy rose from 43 to 61 years at the same time.
The programme of reducing the birth rate was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966. The extreme leftists who led the revolution also had an orthodox Marxist position when it came to population policy. The institutions that dealt with family planning were disbanded, and leading employees were sent to be “re-educated” in the fields and on farms.5 During the 1970s, after the end of the most active part of the Cultural Revolution, the state continued to offer education and necessary services.
This changed after the death of Mao when Deng Xiaoping, who had actively supported reducing the birth rate, came into power. The central aspect of Deng’s modernising project was to reduce the population since he believed that population growth might torpedo the rise of per capita GDP. Deng is world-renowned for ending Maoist campaigns in economics and politics and allowing gradual liberalisation—the latter, of course, more in the economy than politics. However, population policy was a notable exception—the gradual approach was discarded under Deng’s leadership and replaced with something that is probably one of the world’s most draconian population policies—deciding to limit the size of the family to only one child and implementing it through Maoist campaigns and bureaucratic coercion.
The calculations that acted as the basis for the so-called one-child policy were not made by demographers but by the mathematicians of China’s space programme. Their prognosis was that, by 2020, China’s population would be a 1.5 billion people, which they viewed as catastrophic. To avoid this, they had to implement a strict one-child policy.6 Ignoring demography was the basis of that policy.
China’s population growth had dropped from 2.7% a year at the end of the 1960s to 1.54% in the next decade, which was not an especially high figure in the context of that time. What officials gathered from analysing the census of 1982 was that there was an increase in births at the start of the 1980s that was explained by women born after Deng’s Great Leap reaching childbearing age. It was this generation, which was large in both absolute and relative terms, whose birth rate the one-child policy was supposed to cut as a short-term measure.7 In reality, the number of births might have been large in absolute terms but in practice the birth rate had decreased significantly—from 6.3 children per woman of childbearing age in the second half of the 1960s to three children a decade later. Due to inertia characteristic of demographic processes, China’s population still continued to grow, but slightly slower, even though women of childbearing age had started to have fewer than half as many children as previous generations.
Opposition to the one-child policy was widespread and the government had to make it less strict and allow certain exceptions—so, in reality, the name “one-child policy” is misleading. A group of researchers uncovered a total of 22 exceptions. These applied to, for example, farmers whose first child was a girl; couples who were both the only child in their respective families; and minorities. If all women of childbearing age had followed the regulations dictated to them at the turn of the century, the birth rate would have been 1.47 children per woman of childbearing age by the end of the century.8 After a very heated campaign in 1983 and the bad blood it created, the decision-making power over the exceptions was transferred to the provinces, which, in turn, started drawing up plans for lower-level government officials. These plans consisted of almost 20 different indicators. In addition to the prescribed standard number of births, there was the number of children who might exceed the planned figure; the frequency of abortions and sterilisations and the use of different contraceptive methods; the value of collected fines, etc. Failure to meet the plans was penalised.9
The one-child policy resulted in multiple negative consequences. Millions of Chinese women were required to go through (basically) forced sterilisations and abortions, and those not following the laws were fined and their “excess” children not allowed access to public services. Traditionally in China, as in other Asian countries, killing infants was common, especially terminating baby girls. The PRC had begun to fight against such an archaic practice. While in the late 1930s the gender balance in births was 118 boys per 100 girls, by the 1960s (despite the interruption of the Great Leap) it had dropped to 104–107 boys, which is considered a normal ratio.10 In the 1980s, the number began growing again and by 2010 there were 117 boys per 100 girls.
Killing children was no longer possible in the 1980s, and the most common practice was the more discreet “abandoning girls to their fate”, the role of which is illustrated by the gender difference in the mortality among infants under one year old—whilst before the one-child policy the mortality of girls had been slightly higher than boys’, by the turn of the century the gap had grown to 40%. In China’s central province of Gansu and southern province of Jiangxi, the infant mortality rate among girls grew so rapidly (relative to boys) in the last few decades of the century as to be a completely abnormal development.11 With the progress of the Chinese medical system, gender-based abortion, of course, became dominant.
The one-child policy brought about a significant fall in the quality of population statistics in China. The reasons for this were parents trying to hide their children, and attempts by local officials to fulfil the plans imposed from above. Following the example of central authorities, the enforcement of the one-child policy and (more) forceful penalising were gradually abandoned after Deng retired from active politics in the mid-1990s. The paragraphs written into the law still allowed local governments to fine their residents for “excess children”—at the beginning of this decade, this was worth four million US dollars across the nation.12 When these fines were not used to finance the administrations, they were used for personal gain. A common saying among officials in China was: “If you want dinner, find the family planning office”.13
The reduced quality of population statistics also resulted in a situation where the central authorities and administrations did not believe that the stark decline of births after 1990 reported by the statistics was true. When the UN and the assessments presented in specialist literature claimed that, since the beginning of 1990, China’s birth rate was considerably lower than the replacement level—between 1.3 and 1.6—even when so-called hidden children were taken into account, the political authorities claimed resolutely that the real birth rate was 1.8–2.0 per woman of childbearing age.14
Thus, China’s birth rate has been extremely low for the last two and a half decades. Population growth is one-third of the figure prior to the one-child policy, being an average of 0.5% per year during this century. This growth has been achieved due to the influences of a higher birth rate during previous generations and therefore a high number of women of childbearing age. However, if we look at the real growth rate, which does not take into account the age structure of a society, we see that the 2% growth per year in the mid-1970s has been replaced by a 2% decline per year this century, which means that in 30 years the doubling of the population has been replaced by a 50% decrease in the same time frame.15
In 30 years’ time, China’s population won’t be half of what it is now because, thanks to the inertia of population processes, the comparative youth of China’s population will mean that, even with fertility way below the replacement level, births will outnumber deaths, but not for long. According to the medium of the UN prognosis in 2015 (that growth will reach 1.8% by the second half of the century, and life expectancy will increase to almost 90), China’s population will peak at 1.42 billion in 2028, and drop to one billion by the end of the century. The number of people over 65 will increase rapidly. In 2015, there were only 130 million of these, but by the middle of the century there will be 400 million, decreasing to below 350 million by the end of the century. Because China’s per capita GDP is one quarter to one fifth that of developed countries (and one seventh that of the US), China is in a race between a slowing economic growth rate and accelerating aging. It seems that China will grow old before it gets rich.
The aging and shrinking West does not want to act in the way imagined by sceptics. According to the same average prognosis of the UN, this fate is threatening former Eastern bloc countries, Southern Europe, Austria and Germany—the rest will sustain their population level or see a small increase, and by the middle of the century the percentage of elderly will be the same as China’s or below it. The figures for the only current superpower—the United States—are rather better than those for Europe. The stronger Western economy and the wealth that comes with it makes it easier to cope with the problems accompanying an aging population.
China’s relative poverty, the general lack of a universal pension system and the low level of social welfare has created a 4–2–1 situation in which a young person needs to support two parents and four grandparents. The costs associated with this make it difficult for a young person to direct his or her resources into having children, which strongly hinders any possibility of increasing the birth rate.
The imbalance in the marriage market is also problematic. Based on the gender division of recent decades, it has been estimated that during the period 2020–2050 up to 30 million people—16% of the men “on offer” on the marriage market—will be “redundant”, especially those with a lower level of education and income.16 This group, who are not getting ahead in life, may, as such men tend to, suddenly discover a calling for guns, bombs and the ideological projects that justify their use, which makes it difficult to maintain political stability and hinders possible democratisation.
An open letter published in 1980 (the document that we consider the beginning of the one-child policy) mentioned problems such as the lack of labour force caused by the rapid decline of births and the problem of an aging population (as well as the imbalance in gender distribution), but also refuted all of these issues, and set the ultimate target of increasing annual per capita GDP to 800–1,000 US dollars by 2000.17 The drastic aging that might occur in the mid-21st century seemed distant. Bureaucratic inertia and an unfounded fear of a Malthusian scenario created a situation in which a previously short-term policy remained in place until 2016. Old ways of thinking were not dismissed—the one-child policy was replaced with a two-child policy. This will not improve China’s demographic situation significantly.
As mentioned, China’s fertility rate was more than halved in 10 years even before the one-child policy—and this was done by offering services and education, not meting out orders and penalties. This development was similar to what happened in the second half of the 20th century in other East Asian countries, and earlier in Europe and North America. Demographers call such a process demographic transition and have proved its universality—during modernisation, all societies experience first a rapid fall in deaths and then, after a temporal shift, a rapid fall in births. This means that the birth rate in China would have fallen anyway but the one-child policy managed to make that fall even steeper with its draconian measures, especially in rural areas where the birth rate would have remained higher for longer and thus alleviated the soon-arriving problems of aging, decreasing population and excess male population.
That is why demographers (at least those not employed by the Chinese government) have arrived at a consensus that giving up the one-child policy will not bring about effective growth in births or solve the aforementioned problems. It has been proved that there are few discrepancies in the birth rates of people falling under official exceptions and those that do not within one province, especially in the cities where most of the population already resides. In addition, comparing neighbouring provinces with different regulations but a similar socioeconomic level, there is no evidence that a more liberal policy would have brought about a higher birth rate. Moreover, experiments with the two-child policy implemented in many places in 2013 led to far fewer births than the authorities originally expected.18
Surveys carried out in the last two decades show that the ideal Chinese family size remains well below the replacement level, even in rural areas. Thus, liberalising family policy cannot bring about decisive change in the birth rate.19 It is important to note that living in the city, being young, and having a higher education and better salary are factors that reduce the desire to have children.20 In Europe (except Austria) with its low birth rate, however, the number of children people wish to have is above the replacement level. What keeps the figure below that level in Europe is everyday life, with all its obstacles; the same obstacles are also and more strongly present in China due to its lower level of development.
So it seems that China is caught in a low birth rate trap, which is a more scientific equivalent of Rein Taagepera’s metaphor of a “demographic toilet bowl”. The trap has three parts. First, the demographic reasoning—the inertia of demographic processes will lead the population to a point where fewer and fewer women are of childbearing age, thus cutting the absolute number of births and the population size, and making it increasingly difficult to escape the trap through natural population growth. Second, the sociological reasoning—the ideal family size is influenced by personal childhood experiences, which means that people who have been raised without brothers or sisters do not want to have two or more children themselves. And thirdly, the economic reasoning—the aging and reduction of a population brings with it the deterioration of productivity and fall in economic growth, creating a more pessimistic outcome for the future that hinders people’s readiness to incur more expenses for decades to come due to having children. In addition, the increase of a population’s median age causes the society to focus its attention and resources on the elderly, not into bettering the lives of children or families with children.21
The Chinese government and its researchers boast that the one-child policy has managed to prevent 400 million births, created a foundation for the exponential development of the economy, and contributed strongly to battling global warming—but no serious demographer believes this. The leadership and responsible administrations have shown remarkable bureaucratic inertia in population politics. Despite the fact that the birth rate has been extremely low for more than two decades and the number of desired children has decreased as a result, all the knowledge collected through serious research has been swept aside in the decision-making process, while the authorities mechanically assure that loosening restrictions or doing away with them altogether would cause a baby boom, increase poverty and pressure on public services etc. In reality, what should have been done two decades ago was to turn the legislation concerning family planning back in a more favourable direction to achieve a birth rate close to the replacement level to avoid rapid aging, which is considerable in China in comparison to other countries.
The two-child policy implemented in place of the one-child policy in 2016 is, in any case, not the answer to China’s demographic problems, but it does offer some relief.22 Of course it can be claimed that if the leviathan family planning system is reconfigured to favour births, the “obedient” Chinese will start to act according to the stereotype. However, taking into account the level of individualisation of the Chinese and the experience of other East Asian societies, this is very unlikely. It seems certain that continuing with the current trends will result in China growing old before becoming wealthy, which is probably the biggest obstacle for China in becoming a superpower. Should the birth rate remain at the current extremely low level, then by the end of the century the Chinese population will have decreased by almost half. The one-child policy will go down in history as one of the most foolish population policies. It has fully earned that “honour”.
1 Proverbs 14:28.
2 Elise Brezis and Warren Young, The New Views on Demographic Transition: A Reassessment of Malthus’s and Marx’s Approach to Population, European Journal of Economic Thought, 10(1), 25–45.
3 The quote comes from Wu Ta-k’un, “A Critique of Neo-Malthusian Theory” [1960], reproduced in Population and Development Review, 5(4) (1979), 699–708 (704).
4 All demographic indicators and prospects are from the 2015 database of the UN’s Population Division, if not otherwise noted.
5 Quanbao Jiang, Shuzhuo Li and Marcus W. Feldman, China’s Population Policy at the Crossroads: Social Impacts and Prospects, Asian Journal of Social Science, 43(2), 193–218; Susan Greenhalgh and Edwin A. Winckler, Governing China’s Population: From Leninist to Neoliberal Biopolitics, 56–8, 71, 82.
6 Zhongwei Zhao and Fei Guo, “Introduction”, in Zhongwei Zhao and Fei Guo (eds.) Transition and Challenge: China’s Population at the Beginning of the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2007), 1–17 (9); Greenhalgh and Winckler, Governing China’s Population, 103–5.
7 Greenhalgh and Winckler, Governing China’s Population, 106–12.
8 Gu Baochang, Wang Feng, Guo Zhigang and Zhang Erli, China’s Local and National Fertility Policies at the End of the Twentieth Century, Population and Development Review, 33(1), 129–47.
9 Thomas Scharping, “The Politics of Numbers: Fertility Statistics in Recent Decades”, in Transition and Challenge, 34–53 (41–2).
10 Ansley J. Coale and Judith Banister, Five Decades of Missing Females in China, Demography, 31(3), 459–79.
11 Judith Banister, “Poverty, Progress, and Rising Life Expectancy”, in Transition and Challenge, 140–59 (155); Zhongwei Zhao, “Changing Mortality Patterns and Causes of Death”, in Transition and Challenge, 160–76 (167).
12 Stuart Basten and Quanbao Jiang, Fertility in China: An Uncertain Future, Population Studies, 69(S1), S97–S105.
13 Weiguo Zhang and Xingshan Cao, “Family Planning During the Economic Reform Era”, in Transition and Challenge, 18–33 (26).
14 S. Philip Morgan, Guo Zhigang and Sarah H. Hayford, China’s Below-Replacement Fertility: Recent Trends and Future Prospects, Population and Development Review, 35(3), 605–29; Boachang Gu and Yong Cai, “Fertility Prospects in China”, Expert Paper no. 2011/14, UN Population Division; Scharping, The Politics of Numbers, 40.
15 Wang Feng, The Future of a Demographic Overachiever: Long-Term Implications of the Demographic Transition in China, Population and Development Review, 37 (Supplement), 173–90.
16 Quanbao Jiang, Jesús J. Sánchez-Barricarte, Shuzhuo Li and Marcus W. Feldman, Marriage Squeeze in China’s Future, Asian Population Studies, 7(3), 177–93.
17 Greenhalgh, Winckler, Governing China’s Population, 107.
18 Yong Cai, China’s Below-Replacement Fertility: Government Policy or Socioeconomic Development?, Population and Development Review, 36(3), 419–40; ZhenZhen Zheng, Yong Cai, Feng Wang, Baochang Gu, Below Replacement Fertility and Childbearing Intentions in Jiangsu Province, China, Asian Population Studies, 5(3), 329–47; Basten and Jiang, Fertility in China.
19 For example, one meta-study on the basis of 73 separate different surveys illustrates that, in towns, the average number of children people desired was 1.5, compared to 1.82 in rural areas. Basten and Jiang, Fertility in China.
20 Shixiong Cao, Tao Tian, Fan Qi, Li Ma and Guosheng Wang, An Investigation of Women’s Attitudes Towards Fertility and China’s Family Planning Policy, Journal of Biosocial Science, 42(3), 359–75.
21 Wolfgang Lutz, Vegard Skirbekk and Maria Rita Testa, Low-Fertility Trap Hypothesis: Forces that May Lead to Further Postponement and Fewer Births in Europe, Vienna Yearbook of Population Research 2006, 167–92.
22 Yi Zeng and Therese Hesketh, The Effects of China’s Universal Two-Child Policy, The Lancet, 388(10054), 1930–38.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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