Isabel Hilton reports  for Prospect  — In the early 1960s, as a direct result of Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, China was gripped by a catastrophic three-year famine. Up to 50m people starved to death and unsurprisingly the birthrate, which had soared in the previous decade, fell precipitously. Last year, according to figures recently published by the Chinese government, China’s birthrate was even lower than it was at the height of that famine.

One irony of these startling statistics is that they would have been hailed as a policy triumph just a decade ago, when the cruel and draconian “one child” policy—enforced through heavy fines, forced abortions, sterilisation and job losses—was still at its height. That policy was abandoned three years ago when the government began to worry about the impacts of its rapidly ageing population on economic growth and announced that thenceforth it would permit couples to have a second child. Few appeared to listen. After a small uptick in the first year, the birth rate has continued its steady decline. Now the policy debate includes the threat of economic sanctions for failing to have children, as growing a family has gone from a semi-criminal activity to a patriotic duty. Posters in the capital and other cities now urge couples to get on with it for the sake of the nation.

Despite decades of perverse effects, the government appears to have failed to learn the obvious lesson: that birthrates are not determined by Party fiat, but by a wide range of economic and social factors, the most important of which is the freedom women have to make decisions about their lives. In 1979, when the one child policy was imposed, China’s birthrate was already declining sharply as it was in several of China’s neighbours in Asia.

In Taiwan for example, development, education and more readily available contraception created real options for women, and the birthrate fell as they chose those new-found opportunities. Something similar was already happening in China in the 1970s, despite a different system and, at the time, a lower rate of development. By the 1990s Deng Xiaoping’s policies of reform and opening were creating urban factory jobs for millions of rural women, one of the least privileged groups in the entire country, giving them new status, cash in their pockets and choices about their lives.

The urbanisation that also gathered speed in the 1990s sealed the trend: for families who earned their living toiling in the fields, children, especially male children, were an asset, not only because they added much-needed hands, but because tradition dictated that they support their parents as they aged. Once rural workers move to the city, large families become a cost. That effect was magnified in China by the refusal of urban residence rights to rural migrants, which meant that any accompanying children were denied access to urban education and health care. Entire generations of rural children were left behind with grandparents in the village, as their parents laboured in the industrial and construction economy.

Today, it is not having too many people that worries Chinese planners but too few: in the medium term, there will be too few workers to support the growing army of the elderly: projections suggest that by 2050 there will be just three workers to every retiree. In a country that does not welcome inward migration, hopes are pinned on robotics as a solution to increase productivity. In the near term however, China’s problematic demographics bode ill for the government’s ambition to make domestic consumption a primary engine of growth: older people buy less stuff, and the working generation is squeezed between its obligations to elderly parents and the high cost of raising a child in the city. Neither is a recipe for lavish spending.

The one child policy created other population effects that now make the downward trend more intractable: if families could only have one child, it was important that it be a boy, since girls married out and provided no support in later years. The resulting imbalance, which the WHO estimated at 50m “missing” girls, has now translated into a steep drop in the numbers of women of childbearing age.

Finally there are the more subtle effects of development and demography. China’s urban millennials, overwhelmingly only children, grew up as the centre of family attention in a booming China. They are accustomed to career and life choices unimaginable to their parents and grandparents. Rural children have a different set of problems—alienated from their parents and poorly educated, their life prospects remain poor. Neither group was socialised in traditional family structures and they are unlikely to replicate them.

Family ties remain culturally important, but today they are so severely tested that stories circulate of cruelty and neglect, forcing the government to mandate regular visits to elderly parents by adult children, on pain of sanctions under an Elderly Rights Law, passed in 2013. It was widely ridiculed on social media, as today’s efforts to encourage fertility have been.

If China’s planners want a glimpse of the future, they can find it in neighbouring Japan, which entered its own ageing crisis in the 1990s. In both societies, the demography had favoured the years of rapid industrialisation and growth, but Japan’s growth languished as its population aged and began to shrink. China has reached the famously perilous middle income status, and like Japan, is burdened with debt and poor demographics. The prospects of a long stagnation explain the Party’s new enthusiasm for the stork, but so far, people are still not listening.


[Isabel Hilton is a writer, broadcaster, and visiting professor at King’s College London]

Categories: China Supplement