CHINA NEEDS MORE CHILDREN
Having children has grown expensive in China. Special classes, expensive tutoring to get their toddlers into a good school, and further into the future, to buy a son an apartment so he can persuade a woman to marry him. That property burden could cost a family two decades worth of salary.
Most parents are only children in a nation teeming with singletons because of China’s one-child policy, which was unveiled in 1979 as a quick fix for a poor, populous society. A couple’s lack of siblings means they are legally allowed to have two children, but many believe they don’t have the time, money or mental strength for another child. They don’t want to spend their lives working just for thier child – they want more from life than that.
The world’s most populous nation, 1.35 billion strong, will soon have too few people – or, rather too few of the right kind of people. That’s because more than three decades of government-mandated family planning, have succeeded beyond the architect’s grandest dreams. Add to that the natural inclination of richer, more educated people to limit their family size, and China’s population growth is projected to taper off in 15 years.
That would leave the People’s Republic with a distorted population: too few youths, too few women, and too many elderly. The other deadly errors in recent Chinese history – the turbulent 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, and a devastating man-made famine in 1959-61, cost millions of lives, but the harms done were relatively short-lived and corrected quickly afterward. The one-child policy, in contrast, will surpass them in impact.
Ironically, it now threatens to undermine the very economic success it helped spawn. Along with market reforms launched around the same time, it is credited with catalyzing China’s modern transformation. With fewer bellies to feed, a hand-to-mouth society became the world’s second largest economy. Many families, especially in the countryside, are exempted from the one-child maximum, Chinese women bear, on average 1.5 children, compared with about 6 in the late 1960s. By 2030, China’s population is expected to peak just short of 1.4 billion and then begin a long decline.
An Aging Population. One population time bomb has been traded for another. It is growing old before it grows rich, bringing about an explosion of elderly, even as the socialist safety net is fraying. Last year, the working-age population shrank for the first time, a concern for a country that depends on plentiful labour to deliver economic growth, which in turn is needed to quell social instability. By limiting urban families to one child while allowing some rural ones to bear two, China has skewed its population against the type of citizen it needs in order to climb into the ranks of developed countries.
Gender Disparity. Then there are the 25-35 million extra males, a result of tradition-bound parents ensuring that their offspring quota is filled by a son. The people who made the policy never imagined all the problems facing the country now. On Nov 15, 2013, the policy was “fine-tuned”: couples in which one partner is a single child would be allowed to have two offspring. This could add 1 million babies each year.
Too Few Workers. But it may be too little too late as the population problems have already spawned serious dilemmas. It is estimated that a consequence is shaving 3.25 percentage points off the nation’s yearly growth rate through 2030. A phase out of the entire system may be what is needed. During its decade of double-digit growth, China’s competitive advantage came from its huge workforce. Today the country’s labor pool is shrinking, and wages are soaring. No more can factories depend on a constant supply of rural Chinese. Worse, the future supply of factory workers in imperiled. Last year, 13,000 Chinese elementary schools closed for lack of students. Despite wages 35% higher than 5 years ago, workers leave after a few months because of better offers from other employers.
Too Few Youths. One in three Chinese will be older than 60 by 2050 – a 430 million strong cohort. Japan has the same problem, but Japan is far richer than China, and its elderly can expect subsidized, high-quality medical services and caregiving. China has shattered its cradel-to-grave government support. That leaves each single child potentially responsible for six older people – one set of parents and two sets of grandparents – a trend in China called “4-2-1”. Providing for the elderly is even harder now that hundreds of millions of Chinese are mobile, leaving the farms where elderly live to work in the cities where the jobs are.
Too few women. In some classrooms, there are a two-one ratio of boys to girls. In some parts of rural China, residents are allowed to have a second child after a few years wait, if the first baby is female or handicapped. Chinese traditiion values boys over girls because sons carry on the family line. Through illegal yet common ultrasounds and sex-selective abortions – plus the occasional case of female infanticide and abandonment – parents have skewed the gender ratio so heavily that in some rural areas, 135 boys are born for every 100 girls. How can they find a wife?
Chinese men who find no mate to extend their family trees are called bare branches. Their mounting frustration terrifies the Communist Party: young, unattached men are the perfect protest demographic. And they have more more to protest than the scarcity of single women. They wonder why they graduate from college in record numbers yet cannot find decent white collar jobs because China’s economy is still addicted to a labour-intensive model. They worry about real estate. Property markets in big cities are so inflated as young men think buying a home is the best way to lure a potential wife. Starter apartments in Beijing now go for some 30 times a young worker’s average annual income.
The Policy Worked Too Well. Originally intended to be temporary and last for more than a generation, it was laced with loopholes. In cities, families were limited to one child, but for farming communities with more space and a need for more hands, many could have two kids. Ethnic minorities were allowed multiple children. Still local officials, whose promotions depended on keeping population figures low, enforced the rules with chilling zeal, resorting to compulsory sterilizations and abortions. Women in many rural areas are still required to undergo gynecological checkups four times a year to ensure they are not pregant. Local governments milked the system by collecting payments for illegal extra births. It is estimated that $330 billion in such fees have been levied since the one-child policy began.
Government statisticians claim that 400 million fewer Chinese were born because of the policy. Other factors also contributed. As people become wealthier and more educated, they tend to have fewer children. Brutally effective, there have been at least 335 million government approved abortions, 200 million sterilizations, and an unknown number of medical checkups on women who had already filled their quotas.
Standard of Living. The results have dramatically raised living standards. Per capita GDP is now $6,000, campared with $200 in 1980. Hundreds of millions of people have been pulled out of poverty. Decades of government wisdom is that there is less pressure on the economy and environment.
The Future. It is difficult to make people have more children. The precise group that China’s leaders want to see increase its family size – the urban, educated middle class – hasn’t shown much interest in doing so. Growing up as only children, they don’t see the need for big families. In Jiuquan, near the westernmost reaches of the Great Wall, residents have long been free to have two kids. But their fertility rate is lower than the national average. The belief that it is better to raise one child well than have lots that you can’t care for properly is widely held. The gender disparity doesn’t exist in Jiuquan. Nature is better at regulating human demography than the Communist Party.
Update – November 2015
It May Be Too Late to Reverse China’s One-Child Policy
On October 29 2015, China ended its one-child policy and the value of infant-formula companies spiked as investors dreamed of making a profit off a sudden Chinese baby boom. It is estimated that he one-child policy led to 400 million fewer births and China now faces a major aging crisis.
Although married Chinese couples will be free to have two children, there’s little evidence that they will want to .
In the 1970s, the average Chinese woman was bearing more than 5 children and the population was growing at nearly 3% per year. The Great Leap forward produced a man-made famine that killed as many as 45 million people. The 1970s were haunted by a specter of overpopulation, that without population control, the world would run out of food, water and other resources. But it was only China that embarked on a lasting, coercive program to control growth. Beginning in 1980, many Chinese women were only permitted to bear one child. Those that violated the policy could be heavily fined resulting in hundreds of millions of government-approved abortions, some forced on unwilling women.
In 1979, the government announced a population goal of 1.2 billion for the year 2000 – and it just missed with 1.26 billion. A huge wave of working-age adults had fewer children to take care of, which helped speed the country’s explosive economic growth in the 1990s and 2000s. Now overpopulation is no longer a major worry.
Given the cultural preference for sons, many female fetuses were aborted and now China has some 30 million “missing females”, a gender imbalance that could threaten the country’s security as millions of Chinese men – known as “bare branches” – are unable to find anyone to marry.
Most of all, China is aging fast A generation of young Chinese are struggling with what’s called the “4-2-1 phenomenon,” in which a single working grandchild has to support two parents and four grandparents. By 2050, 1 in 3 Chinese will be older than 60, a 430 million-strong cohort larger than the entire US. Older countries grow slower economically, which is a big enough problem for rich nations like Japan, where the median age is 45. Yet China is on pace to become old before it can become rich – a far tougher problem.
But Chinese parents have imposed a personal policy on themselves. In 2013, adults who were only children were permitted to have two kids – but of the 11 million eligible citizens, only 1.5 million applied to do so. Just 19% wanted more than one child. As women grow richer, more educated and more urbanized, they choose to have fewer children. Now most countries that pursued population control are now implementing policies meant to increase their birthrates. But it’s harder to coerce women into having more children than it is to prevent them.