Chinas distorted demography

Written by Anurag Viswanath | Updated: Dec 6 2013, 08:56am hrs
At Chinas Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress held in November, President Xi Jinping announced the long-awaited reversal of Chinas coercive one-child policythis move could add between 5 million and 10 million babies a year (or 25-50 million in five years). Is the shift to hum do, hamare do a case of better late than never

Thirty years ago Judith Banister, the author of the influential Chinas Changing Population wrote, Chinese government is not so wise that it can be depended upon to make all the right economic and demographic choices Perhaps there is an element of truth in this. While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has hitched its survival and legitimacy to economic growth, its demographic choices have been less than laudatory. Believing that fewer people would lead to faster wealth, Chinas stringent one-child policy (not applicable with respect to ethnic minoritiesUyghurs, Mongols, Tibetans etcand in certain poverty stricken rural areas) prevented 400 million births or so claimed by the CCP between 1979 and 2011. But this came at great social costsincluding pushing limits of human experimentation. As Banister noted, human trials came before animal trials and informed consent appears largely unknown.

Chinas economic transition has changed the societal landscape so dramatically that fertility has been declining, halving from 5.8 to 2.7 between 1970 and 1979. Today, the average number of children a couple produces has declined to 1.5 and in cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin has fallen below 1.00, below the replacement level of 2.1coaxed by ready availability of birth-control techniques and pinched by stress, rising costs of living, housing, increasing costs of primary school education and medical costs.

Chinas social cheer is turning tricklethe feted little emperors herald a society that is increasingly atomistic and individualistic. Cases of parental neglect that were unheard of in a society that values filial piety are, sadly, quite commonplace. For example, the recent case of a 94-year-old woman suing her children for neglect made headlines.

On the other hand, many young Chinese moan about being the new sandwiched classthe 4:2:1 or the six-pocket syndrome playing backwards (four grandparents, two parents and one child configuration). The little emperor now stands sandwiched between ageing parents and the demands of the nuclear familyhis own young child. Today China is witnessing the rising phenomenon of sheng nu and sheng nan, the so-called leftover women and leftover men unable to marry as they are unable to find a match or who are forgoing marriage.

According to Feng Wang (Brookings-Tsinghua Centre, Washington, 2010), the number 160 best characterises Chinas demographic dilemma160 million migrants (though many scholars place the figure anywhere between 160 million and 260 million migrants), 160 million Chinese over 60 years of age and 160 million families with one childthis means one in three families have only one child.

This dilemma is the result of socialism, economic growth and persistent control, the latter via the institution of the Family Planning Office (1964). Socialism decreed mass production of contraceptives (1955) and made abortion and sterilisation legal (1957). Besides, cumulative factors such as Marriage Law (1950) raised the age of marriage, dispensed bare-foot doctors who helped control child-morbidity, enabled universal education which dramatically improved literacy. Gender erasure or what has been described as socialist androgyny by scholar Marilyn Young with men and women the same extending to jobs, clothes and hairstyle gave women a larger economic role in agriculture/industry. All these also set the stage for rapid decline in fertility. Demographers argue that even without coercion birthrate would have declined, though perhaps not that much.

However, instead of tapping into voluntarism, the socialist state compounded the problem by zealously playing a part. The State Family Planning Commission (SFPC) grew into a large interest group. While in India in the 1970s a similar campaign backfiredread Sanjay Gandhi and Rukhsana Sultans sterilisation spreeChina steamed ahead.

In times when literacy, immunisation and gender-equality was motivating enough to practice birth control, state slogans such as wan, xi, shaowan (later marriage), xi (longer birth interval) and shao (fewer births), one is not too few, two is good, three is way too many were generously employed. Finally, in 1979, the one-child policy was enacted.

The consequence of the long-practised policy has not gone unnoticed. Chinas demographers have been long warning of the implications. Today, China is gender-skewed with 118 boys to 100 girlsChinas cultural son-preference at large. When couples could only have one child, both ancestor worship and lineage became important factors. Widespread amniocentesis, female infanticide followed and under-reporting of female births became a formula for corruption.

One fallout is the growing shortage of femalesestimates of excess males over females vary between 24 million and 30 million by 2020. These excess men will not be able to find a bride or marryand this is causing concern. The shortage of females is leading to soaring bride price. Unlike India, in China parents of the bride expect the groom to own a house and pay a hefty sum, the bride price. This is a growing phenomenon in rural/urban China in the past decade.

Besides, there has been a decline of population in the age cohort 14-24 years. This cohort demographic dividend played a critical role in the success of Chinas labour-intensive export-led strategy but is declining from its high in the 1980s and 1990s. Increasing labour strikes in the golden coastline, shortages and labour litigation should be seen in the light of this squeeze.

It is a foregone conclusion that China is greyingpopulation aged 60 and older will increase from 10% in 2000 to about 31% in 2050. The number of elderly (65 years and above) will jump from 133 million in 2001 to 450 million in 2050what is popularly called getting old before getting rich.

Ageing in China is a rural phenomenon; young migrants have led to hollowed villages as they move towards the golden coastlinePearl delta (Guangdong), Jing-Jin-ji belt (Beijing, Tianjin) and Yangtze delta (Shanghai) in search of opportunities.

While social security in urban areas is strong, in rural areas it is weak. The New Rural Cooperative Medical System (2003) seeks to provide minimum livelihood protection by 2015 to all elderly below the poverty line. The New Basic Rural Pension Insurance has so far covered 190 million villagers. The CCP plans to roll out universal basic pension by 2020.

Thus, social security has to not only redress the urban-rural imbalance but also involve actorsstate, market, communities and the NGO sector, which is challenging. Moreover, urban and rural social security does not cover migrants or the floating population in other words, 160 -260 million are out of its ambit. Many are suggesting increasing Chinas working population by increasing retirement agecurrently 55 years for men and 50 years for women.

In the demography picture, what is better or worse An excess of males who may not be able to marry and may turn to crime A labour squeeze in the golden coastline Or an ageing population that is too sapped to participate in Tiananmen-style demonstrations and who thus unwittingly contribute to CCPs golden rule stability

If Amartya Sen rationalised why famines are virtually impossible in democratic countries, it is interesting to note the default bottom line in Judith Banisterthat a democracy is a slow winding process, but it provides safeguards as Sanjay Gandhi and Co learnt.

The author is a Singapore-based sinologist and is currently visiting fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi