Issue 2, June 2008
|The Demographic Conundrum|
By all accounts, China is on the brink of a major demographic transition that will have lasting cultural, social, and economic effects. Family upheavals in both rural and urban populations deserve special mention.
In 1979, the CCP instituted a “One Child” policy for all families in an effort to address the overpopulation of the country that was exacerbated in the Mao era (when Mao told citizens it was their duty to have more children). The policy’s implementation has always been left up to provincial officials, and its enforcement has been uneven and ripe for corruption. Methods for compliance have included widely-adopted contraceptive use and sterilization, as well as reports of more radical techniques such as forced abortions. In his account of his travels across China in the early 2000s, journalist Rob Gifford tells of a harrowing conversation he had with a rural family planning services official whose job it was to travel the countryside inspecting families for compliance with the One Child Policy. Those found to be in violation were fined heavily. In addition, this CCP official traveled with several nurses in tow, and Gifford’s reporting describes how it became apparent that part of their job was to perform forced abortions on violators who were caught during pregnancy.
This policy has been immensely effective in achieving its goal: keeping population growth in China in check. The Chinese government estimates that between 300-400 million births have been prevented (roughly equivalent to the population of the U.S.), and China has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. However, although the One Child Policy has been effective in reaching its overall population growth rate reduction goals, the negative consequences it has produced on China’s demographics are significant in two ways.
First, compliance with the One Child Policy has often meant that many baby girls were subject to selective abortion, abandonment, or infanticide. Girls have been less valued in Chinese society, in part because they traditionally join the husband’s family. This custom not only physically and emotionally transfers the daughter to another family unit, leaving her aging parents alone, but her earning potential and her role as a caregiver to the elderly goes with her. The result is an enormous gender gap with 117 boys born for every 100 girls. Though this number may not seem to be a giant imbalance, translated across 1.3 billion people, it is a substantial discrepancy.
This gender gap means many things, one being fewer potential brides for Chinese men, and in some rural areas, despair of ever finding a mate. This gender imbalance can be destabilizing, often leading to increased prostitution and trafficking women and brides from foreign countries. The psychological effect on women, understandably, can be demoralizing. In an increasingly male-dominated society, women are often marginalized and discriminated against in employment. They are in high demand as sex workers, and their overall public health and life expectancy has declined from its high point during the Mao era. Women were once considered partners in the revolution by Mao, but the combination of their declining population and dislocations/insecurity caused by the migrant labor economy has coalesced for an overall decline in their well-being. The Gender-Related Development Index (GDI) is a combined measurement of life expectancy, literacy, and dearnings for women compared with those for men, where the higher the number, the greater the equality. China has a score of .741 on the GDI. This compares with a score of .936 in the US and .945 in Australia. James Kynge reports on more extreme effects, citing abusive marriages and migrant-labor situations that are producing a staggering increase in the female suicide rate in China. He cites a World Bank/Harvard study that showed that an average of 500 female suicides occurs in China daily, and that 56% of female suicides around the world occur in China.
Second, the One Child Policy is part of a looming predicament for the larger Chinese society and economy as well. While the number of China’s elderly is increasing, thanks to greater life expectancies resulting from improved global health and sanitation (experienced worldwide), the population who will care for them and assume their positions in the workforce is shrinking. Journalist Melinda Liu from Newsweek International cites a study from the National Bureau of Statistics showing that in 2005, 42% of Chinese families already consisted of an elderly couple living alone. With Mao’s “iron rice bowl” welfare system largely dismantled, this could spell crisis for the aging population who depend on children for their care.
It is estimated that by 2050, the proportion of citizens over 60 will be three times what it is now, while the younger population will decline significantly. This is often expressed in terms of a dependency ratio (the number of elderly as a percentage of working age adults). China’s dependency ratio in 2005 was 11%. In 2050 it is projected to be 39%. As a result, in 2008 China briefly flirted with the idea of moderating the One Child Policy, but Party officials ultimately decided instead to keep it in place, with minor revisions, for the next 50 years. Many demographers believe that China’s current rise has partially been a result of favorable dependency ratios (the country has been said to be in the “sweet spot”), and that China’s demise may be spelled out in numbers, specifically the declining number of laborers available to keep the economy growing. It has been said by many that one of China’s greatest dangers on its development trajectory is that “it will grow old before it grows rich.”