China’s One-Child Policy: What Does the Future Hold?

May 27, 2011 § 6 Comments

The preliminary 2010 China census figures are in—and they are eye-opening.

Some numbers (Science):

1. Total population in 2010: 1.34 billion

  Total population in 2000: 1.27 billion

2. Percentage of population 14 years-old and younger in 2010:  16.6%

  Percentage of population 14 years-old and younger in 2000:  22.9%

3. Percentage of population 60 and over in 2010: 13.3%

  Percentage of population 60 and over in 2000: 10.4%

4. Sex ratio of boys to girls in 2010: 118.1 to 100

  Sex ratio of boys to girls in 2000: 116.9 to 100

I’m not a demographer or a statistician, so the observations here will keep to the obvious.

China’s population is still growing and is still the largest in the world, but at a growth rate of only 5.8% since 2000 (vs. 11.7% between 1990 and 2000), China is on track to cede its “most populous nation” ranking to India by 2025.

Because of the low birth rate, associated with the one-child policy instituted more than 30 years ago now, China’s work force has been shrinking for the past decade; the current census indicates that the shrinkage is set to become more pronounced.  Analysts have been noting for some time that the supply of cheap labor in China is drying up, as the ever smaller labor force demands ever higher wages.  With wages increasing, companies have begun “going west,” seeking cheaper pools of labor in the less developed inland regions of China (where wages can be half of what they are on China’s more prosperous east coast).

International companies, looking at the growing costs of labor, are leaving China altogether, offshoring and outsourcing their manufacturing to countries still less developed, such as Vietnam and Cambodia.  Recognizing this trend, the Beijing government has made accessibility to higher education and the development of indigenous higher-tech industry key planks of the current Five-Year Plan (2011-2015).

China is getting older, the census figures also tell us.  And this is a major problem.  As a result of the one-child-policy fewer children are available to take care of aging parents.  In the past, it was assumed that children would be responsible for the well-being of their parents—and grandparents.  This was all part of the family compact: parents were to raise, feed, and shelter the young and, in turn, as part of their reciprocal filial obligations, the young were to nurture and care for their parents in old age (and even in death).  The one-child policy means, of course, that there are not multiple children to share the responsibility.

But that families are down to one child is only a piece of the problem.  As more and more young people move to the cities in search of economic opportunities, they now commonly live at rather great distances from their parents and grandparents.  Parents tell of not seeing their children for a year or more at a time.  An epidemic of elderly depression has been tied to the consequent loneliness experienced by the elderly, especially when the spouse dies.  How to provide for the elderly, materially and psychologically, is thus an enormous issue facing China today.  The country’s social service system is hobbling as it is—which may explain why the leadership has floated the novel, but curious, idea of writing filial piety into law, requiring children to care for and visit their parents “regularly,” allowing parents to sue their children if they don’t comply–whatever “regularly” might mean (see sampling of netizens’ views in China Daily article).

Clearly the sex imbalance of 118 to 100 is well beyond the normal.  No doubt this has much to do with the one-child policy in a country where the preference for males who could carry on the family line is deeply rooted.  Some of the imbalance is likely owing to underreporting of female births by those who’d like to have another child; but mostly it’s owing to selective abortion, illegal but quite common.

What might this imbalance foretell?  As females in the marriage market decrease, competition for them will increase.  The challenge for males will be to be successful in a market where demand is high and supply is low.  Recent years suggest that the formula for success is to promise the would-be bride that the male comes complete with house and car—which has driven up consumption, inflation, and the housing bubble.   Yes, I think there is a connection to be made between the one-child-policy and the current, seemingly uncontrollable, housing bubbles.  Families regard the investment in a home as a necessary investment in the continuation of the family line.  Recent surveys have shown over and over that marriageable females rank housing and a car as the most desirable assets a potential husband can bring to a marriage.

It might seem that women, at least, would benefit from the sex imbalance.  But it has also encouraged the growth of a market in women: poor peasant girls, kidnapped or lured from their homes by brokers, may be transported to distant provinces and sold as wives to men unable to find brides.

And what about the slew of males who come up empty-handed?  It is estimated that, by 2020, there will be 30 million more men than women in China (China Daily article as well).  Traditionally the Chinese government has always been worried about such “bare sticks”—family-less young men dissatisfied with their lot—and the danger they pose to social order.  The current government is no different—China’s leaders are painfully aware of the impact that bands of unhappy, partner-less, high testosterone 20-something males could have on the “harmonious society.”

There’s, of course, much more that could be said about these census numbers.  But I hope that these few, brief observations help to explain why in China today there is ongoing debate over whether to continue the one-child policy or not.

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