Monday, Dec. 02, 2013
Why China Needs More Children
By Hannah Beech / Jiuquan

It has been a long time since Liu Jinghu and his wife enjoyed a weekend to themselves. Saturdays and Sundays in smoggy Beijing are dedicated to their only child, 2-year-old son Xiaojing: there are early-childhood exercise classes; singing sessions with other families; Lego-building sprees in a living room scattered with toys. Then there's the specter of expensive tutoring to get their toddler into a good school and, further into the future, the pressure to buy their son an apartment so he can persuade a woman to marry him. That property burden could cost Liu, a software-development manager, and his wife, a human-resources specialist, two decades' worth of salary. Such are the costs of raising a kid today in middle-class China.

Liu and his wife are themselves 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. The couple's lack of siblings means they are legally allowed to have two children. But another kid? Forget it, says Liu. Who has the time or money or stress-busting mental reserves for that? "We don't want to spend our lives working just [for our child]," says Liu. "We 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. More than three decades of government-mandated family planning, often called the one-child policy, have succeeded beyond the architects' most grandiose dreams. Add to that the natural inclination of richer, more educated people like Liu and his wife to limit their family size, and China's population growth is projected to taper off within 15 years.

That would leave the People's Republic with a distorted population: too few youths, too few women and too many elderly. Writing in the Population and Development Review, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Population Council in New York City, three top Chinese demographers predict that "the one-child policy will be added to the other deadly errors in recent Chinese history," alongside the turbulent 1966 — 76 Cultural Revolution and a devastating man-made famine from 1959 — 61. "While those grave mistakes both cost tens of millions of lives, the harms done were relatively short-lived and were corrected quickly afterward. The one-child policy, in contrast, will surpass them in impact."

Many factors could disrupt the Chinese miracle, the greatest economic expansion the world has ever witnessed. Corruption and abuse of power afflict the ruling Communist Party, which must figure out how to placate a populace no longer satisfied simply by a full rice bowl. The nation is plagued by dirty air, foul water and a contaminated food chain. Then there's the government's repression of independent voices, which human-rights activists say stifles creative impulses. Yet perhaps the most dangerous drag on China's future is a demographic one.

The one-child policy, coupled with market reforms launched around the same time, is credited with catalyzing China's economic transformation. With fewer bellies to feed, the government turned a hand-to-mouth society into the world's second largest economy. Today Chinese women bear, on average, around 1.5 children, according to independent estimates, compared with around 6 in the late 1960s. (For a nation to maintain its population, it needs a total fertility rate of at least 2.1 babies per woman.) By 2030, China's population is expected to peak at just short of 1.4 billion and then begin a long decline.

In implementing the largest social-engineering experiment in human history, the People's Republic has merely traded one population time bomb for another. China now faces a multitude of social woes usually seen in more-developed economies better equipped to handle these challenges. It is growing old before it grows rich — meaning an explosion of elderly Chinese even as the government has presided over a fraying of the nation's socialist safety net.

Last year the working-age population shrank for the first time, according to China's National Bureau of Statistics, a huge concern for a government that depends on plentiful labor to deliver economic growth, which is in turn 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. Then there are the some 25 million extra males, a result of tradition-bound parents ensuring that their offspring quota is filled by a son. "I don't think the one-child policy was worth it," says Mu Guangzong, a population expert at Peking University. "The people who made the policy never imagined all the problems we're facing right now. Their knowledge of demography was shallow. Now society has to pay heavily for their ignorance."

After years of dawdling, China's leaders are trying to forestall the looming crisis. On Nov. 15 state media announced that President Xi Jinping had signed off on what days earlier was characterized as a "fine-tuning" of the family-planning policy: couples in which one partner is a single child would be allowed to bear two offspring. By some estimates, the policy shift could add 1 million new babies to maternity wards each year.

But this may be too little, too late for a nation whose population problems have already spawned serious social dilemmas. "We don't need adjustments to the family-planning policy," says Gu Baochang, a demographer at People's University in Beijing. "What we need is a phaseout of the whole system." Will that happen? After this month's one-child-policy reform was announced, Wang Pei'an, Vice Minister of the powerful National Health and Family Planning Commission, ruled out further changes. Just days later, however, another official sounded more optimistic. Plainly, the debate continues on exactly when the deeply unpopular policy might be abolished.

The Policy Worked — Too Well
Despite the human-rights abuses committed in the one-child policy's name, the conventional wisdom is that it was very much worth it. Government statisticians claim 400 million fewer Chinese were born because of Beijing's family-planning efforts. This national disappearing trick was achieved through brute bureaucracy: at least 335 million government-approved abortions, 200 million sterilizations and frequent medical checkups to detect and discourage pregnancies among women who had already filled their quotas. In the cities, families were generally limited to a single child, while farmers whose first offspring was a girl or a mentally or physically handicapped child — yes, there is an equivalency drawn between a daughter and a disabled baby — could have a second. Couples in which both parents are only children could also have two kids. Ethnic minorities were allowed multiple children.

Proponents of the policy contend that policing the nation's wombs helped the People's Republic dramatically raise living standards. Per capita GDP in China rose to $6,000 last year, from less than $200 in 1980. China has pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty since the one-child policy began. "The consensus for a long time in China has been that fewer people is good because that puts less pressure on the economy and environment," says Lu Jiehua, a social demographer at Peking University. "It's hard for leaders to go against decades of wisdom."

But demographers — even those nurtured in the communist system — scoff at Beijing's claim that it prevented 400 million more Chinese from inhabiting the planet. As any nation becomes wealthier and better educated, women naturally bear fewer children. In Japan and Italy, for example, fertility rates have declined with no government-enforced abortions. Population expert Mu reckons that the one-child policy prevented a maximum of 100 million births, not 400 million. Economic development did the rest. Nor, say the experts, will relaxing the rules necessarily fix the population imbalances. 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. "Because my wife and I grew up as only children, we don't see the need for big families," says Liu, the software manager. "I guess we've gotten used to a society of only children."

The social engineers who designed the one-child policy never intended for their handiwork to hold for more than a generation. Even they referred to their experiment as "temporary" and laced the system with loopholes — less than 40% of the Chinese population is limited to one child. Still, local officials, whose promotions were dependent on keeping population figures low, instituted the policy with chilling zeal, resorting to compulsory sterilizations and abortions, even when women were just days from delivery. Women from many rural areas are still required to undergo gynecological checkups four times a year to ensure they are not pregnant.

That requires a bureaucracy of gargantuan proportions. Half a million Chinese work in government family planning — and they don't want to lose their jobs. Local governments have also milked the system by collecting "social-support fees," as payments for illegal extra births are known. The amount of the fines is set locally and is often calculated at several times a person's annual income, meaning that farmers simply can't pay such exorbitant penalties. Demographer He Yafu estimates conservatively that, since the one-child policy began, about $330 billion in such fees have been levied. The money flows into the hands of local officials with almost no accountability.

But the biggest obstacle to abolishing the one-child policy is the growth-at-all-costs mind-set that has motivated China for more than three decades. This single-minded dedication has already cursed the nation's environment and allowed a wealth gap to widen. "No one denies that China needed to develop," says demographer Gu. "But we need to ask what problems will be created by developing too fast and making GDP growth our only way to evaluate success. We have ignored the social costs of development for far too long."

Problems of Paucity
Now the economic costs are emerging too. The following three consequences of China's social engineering could shave at least 3.25 percentage points off the nation's yearly growth rate through 2030, according to Citigroup economists.

TOO FEW WORKERS During its decades of double-digit growth, China's competitive advantage came from its huge workforce. Today the country's labor pool is shrinking, and wages are rising fast. For years, Wang Jinshi could depend on a constant supply of rural Chinese to make shoes at his factory in southern Foshan city. No more. China has passed a key milestone in its development, where easy growth can no longer be powered by an endless supply of cheap labor. There are simply not enough future factory workers. Last year, 13,600 elementary schools closed for a lack of students. "The economic cycle is broken," says Wang, who constantly hustles to find workers. He now pays wages that are 35% higher than five years ago — and this for workers who often leave after a few months because of better offers from other employers.

TOO FEW YOUTHS By 2050, 1 in 3 Chinese will be older than 60 — a 430 million cohort bigger than the entire population of the U.S. In developed nations like Japan, the elderly explosion is a huge problem. But Japan is far richer than China, and the elderly can expect subsidized, high-quality medical services and caregiving. China, by contrast, has shattered its "iron rice bowl," the socialist term for cradle-to-grave government support. That leaves each single child potentially responsible for six old people — one set of parents and two sets of grandparents — a trend in China that is called "4-2-1." Providing for the elderly is even harder now that hundreds of millions of Chinese are mobile, leaving the farms where the elderly live to work in cities where the jobs are.

Demographer Gu, 68, offers his own case as an example. A native of Shanghai, he now works in Beijing. His father, who died last year, needed 16 years of home care. (Nursing homes are rare in China, and Confucian ideals pile guilt on those who consider them.) Gu has three brothers and two sisters who took turns caring for their father. Most contemporary families don't have that luxury. "Who will take care of all those single children when they grow old?" Gu asks. "I'm just happy I won't be around to deal with it."

TOO FEW WOMEN The stalks of wheat and corn grow high in Fancheng, a quiet community in central China's Henan province. On occasion, children play hide-and-seek in the fields and farmhouses. They are mostly boys. At the local elementary school, teacher Yin Le's class has 27 boys and 13 girls. As in other parts of rural China, Fancheng residents are allowed to have a second child after a few years' wait, if the first baby is a daughter or handicapped. Chinese tradition 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. "What shall these boys do in the future?" says Yin, who teaches seventh grade. "How can they find a wife if there are not enough girls?"

Those Chinese men who will find no mate to extend their family trees are called "bare branches." Their growing frustration represents a huge threat to the Communist Party — young, unattached men are the perfect protest demographic. Already, dozens of small-scale demonstrations break out daily in China, despite the government spending $125 billion a year on what it calls "stability maintenance," more than its entire defense budget.

Raising One Is Hard Enough
For all its economic glory and rising global influence, China can feel like it's suffering from a case of nationwide insecurity. Growth is slowing. Unrest is rising, as are costs. Through social media in which state censors can be evaded, Chinese — especially the pampered, opinionated little emperors that the one-child policy has wrought — are speaking out and criticizing the government.

These singletons 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 labor-intensive model. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs like James Liang, CEO of Ctrip, China's version of Expedia, complain that the labor shortage caused by the one-child policy has hampered China's capacity to innovate at a time when it must make the leap to the next rung of the development ladder. China's youths are confronting a world in which they may not make the kind of economic strides their parents did. One of the reasons why property markets in big cities are so inflated is because young men think they must own apartments before they can secure spouses from a diminishing pool of available women due to the nation's gender imbalance. Starter apartments in Beijing now go for some 30 times a young worker's average annual income.

No wonder so many urban Chinese aren't eager to expand their families. One government study found that in the eastern city of Nanjing, 40% of those who qualify to have more than one child had no plans to do so. The prognosis, then, looks grim: even if the one-child policy were totally abolished, China's population could not be boosted quickly enough to catalyze the growth the government needs to stave off social strife. Whatever baby bump does occur won't add workers and women for another two decades.

So why is it that foreign observers keep coming to China to study its family-planning model? Even today, the government links its economic success to the one-child scheme, neglecting to mention its negative effects to visiting social scientists. Beijing acts as the wise older brother, dispensing advice to Asians, Africans and Latin Americans who wish to help their homelands replicate China's economic trajectory. The People's Republic is even lauded by U.N. officials and Western pundits for having helped save the planet from overpopulation. "We know what a big problem our family-planning policy has been," says demographer Gu. "Yet our leaders want to export it. I try to tell the foreigners I meet, 'No, don't do what we did.'"

If all these visiting VIPs really wanted to learn from China, they'd do well to consult the results of a pilot project conducted near the westernmost reaches of the Great Wall. Residents of the windswept region of Jiuquan, where Gobi sands drift toward ancient ramparts, have long been able to freely have two kids. Yet even without forced abortions and the mortifying tracking of women's menstrual cycles by government workers, Jiuquan's fertility rate is lower than the national average. You Shengguo, a 42-year-old villager, explains why he had no wish to expand his family beyond his only daughter. "One child is enough," he says. "It's better to raise one child well than have lots whom you can't care for properly."

Equally significant, the extreme gender disparity that plagues other parts of China doesn't exist here. At the Dingjiaba primary school, for instance, there are more girls than boys. Nature, it turns out, is better at regulating human demography than any Communist Party apparatchik. After more than three decades of misguided family planning, that should be China's lesson to the world.






そうなれば中国の人口構成は歪なものになってしまうだろう。若者や女性の人口はあまりに少なく、高齢者人口は過剰になる。ニューヨーク市の人口審査会が発行する学術専門誌「人口と発展レビュー(Population and Development Review)」の論文の中で、最高権威者と評される3人の人口統計学者は「一人っ子政策は、中国現代史における誤った政策にもう一つの手ひどい過誤を付け加えることになるだろう」と書いている。現代の誤った政策とは1966年から76年までに起きた動乱の文化大革命、1959年から61年の人災が引き起こした悲惨な飢饉だ。「この2つの深刻な失策は何千万という命を奪ったが、引き起こされた災害の期間は比較的短期であり、後日早急に是正された」それに比べて一人っ子政策の影響は、それらをはるかに凌ぐものになるだろう。





何年も時間を無駄にした後で、中国の指導者たちは迫りくる危機に対処しようとしている。数日前に計画生育政策(the family-planning policy)を「微調整する」と位置付けられたものを習近平国家主席が承認した」と11月15日に国営メディアは報じた。そうなれば片方が一人っ子である夫婦は子どもを2人許される。幾つかの概算によれば、この変更によって毎年分娩室の新生児は100万人増えるという。


< 一人っ子政策は効果があった。あり過ぎた。 >






< 不足の問題 >

< 労働者の不足 >

< 若者の不足 >


< 女性の不足 >


< 1人を育てるだけで精いっぱい >







inserted by FC2 system