Saturday, November 28, 2009

The one-child policy

It was reported yesterday that Chinese experts have called for the country's notorious one-child policy to be changed. They claim that the country now faces a gender imbalance because of this policy, and an ageing population.

The policy is one of the things about China which everyone has heard about in the West, and it is usually seen unfavourably. However, the perspective most Chinese people have on it seems to be very different, ambivalent and even accepting. Of course, to Westeners the idea that the state could intrude on such a private decision in people's lives seems unacceptable. However in China, because of differences in culture and history, the idea that the state can impose similar restrictions on its citizens for the sake of the common good does not seem so strange.

The policy is not enforced as strictly as many imagine. For a start, it only applies to the Han, the main ethnic group of China, and not to any of the 55 minority groups (why is anyone's guess). Couples made up of two single children are allowed to have a second child. Furthermore, rural coupls in many areas are allowed to have a second child if the first one is a girl, in order to prevent the phenomenon of female infanticide or the abortion of female foetuses. Couples whose first child is handicapped or deceased can also usually have a second one. If a couple breaks the law and has a second child when they are not supposed to, they usually just have to pay a fine. In practice, a lot of families do have more than one child, especially in rural areas, and they simply pay the fine. I have a lot of Chinese friends who have brothers and sisters. In urban areas the policy appears to be more widely followed than in rural ones.

The policy certainly has had its well publicized drawbacks, the main one being cases of female infanticide in the countryside. In the Chinese countryside, sons are still often considered more valuable than daughters. Although cultural reasons certainly come into it, another good explanation is that in areas where farm work is still carried out using traditional methods, boys are more valuable because of their superior physical strenght. Although there have been cases of female infanticide in rural areas, the actual extent of the phenomenon is debated. Nowadays, thanks to ultrasound scanning which reveals what sex the phoetus is, it is possible to simply carry out an abortion if the phoetus turns out to be female. This practice is illegal, but however it is still common.

China currently suffers from quite a wide gender imbalance: the sex ratio at birth between males and females was of 117:100 in mainland China in the year 2000, which is significantly higher than the natural baseline (which is around 105:100). It is estimated that there will be 30 million more men than women in China by 2020 (however this has to be seen in the context of a population of 1300 million). Other Asian countries also have a higher proportion of men than women, although maybe not as high as China. The Indian economist Amartya Sen has written widely about this phenomenon, talking mainly about his native India, where the sex ratio is also quite skewed. The reasons for this phenomenon obviously have to do with the bias in favour of boys leading to baby girls receiving less high-quality health care and nutrition, as well as selective abortions which also occur in India. Even countries like Taiwan and South Korea are affected by this, although recently South Korea's gender ratio has become more balanced because of the increase in the standard of living and education. In the case of China, however, statistics seem to show that the gender imbalance has got worse since the introduction of the one-child policy, which has to be at least partly responsible.

Defenders of the policy point to the reduction in the birth rate of this overcrowded country. Since the introduction of the one-child policy in the early eighties, the birth rate has fallen from about three births per woman to around 1.8 in 2008. Others respond that the birth rate had already been dropping previously because of the increase in the standard of living and education, and it would probably have gone on falling anyway without such an extreme policy being imposed.

Personally, I can understand why a lot of Chinese people feel that there is a need for such a policy. It is one thing to read about overcroded China is, and it's another thing to experience it everyday. Once you have travelled in the absurdly packed third class of a Chinese train during the spring festival, with people sleeping on the floor all over the place, you can begin to appreciated the problem. In my experience, the Chinese are all very aware of living in a country with too many people. Whenever you have a discussion with a Chinese person about any of the social problems of China, they almost always begin their reply by saying: "in China there are too many people....". This almost seems to become a kind of justification for everything which is wrong with China. Even when I had a discussion about the death penalty with a Chinese student, he told me that extreme laws are necessary to keep order in China "because in China there are so many people".

Statistics on the population density of China hide the scale of the problem, because they obscure the fact that about 90% of China's population lives in about 50% of its territory. The North-Western area including Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai and Inner Mongolia is huge but scarcely inhabited because of the inhospitable terrain. The South-Eastern Chinese heartland is the really densely populated region, and it is just as overcrowded as India.

Even though the Chinese birth rate may have been falling even without the one-child policy, the policy has clearly speeded things up. There certainly are couples in China who decided only to have one child because of it. I can see that any reduction in the birth rate can only be a good thing, for China and the world. As for the worry about the population ageing, this is a problem which all developed country have to face, not just China. Although I can see that it will cause problems, I also feel that the planet is overcrowded, and it is basically a positive thing if birth rates drop. If this means that for a period there will be more old people than young people, so be it. It's not the end of the world.

It may be that China will soon embark on some kind of less extreme family planning policy. It was certainly a good idea to allow couples in rural areas to have a second child if the first one is a daughter. The problem of the gender imbalance should also be addressed by educating people, and trying to create the conditions for people not to feel the need for having a son rather than a daughter. All in all, I can't help feeling that some attempt to discourage people from having a lot of children would still be positive. But it will probably be economic development and education which will push the birth rates down more than anything else.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Chinese, the Jews and Israel

One refreshing aspect about China in comparison to the West (or of course the Middle East) is that practically no one has any strong preconceived ideas about the state of Israel and its conflict with the Arab world. Well educated Chinese people have usually heard about the conflict, in my experience, but their notions on it tend to be vague. Most of them feel about as strongly about the Arab-Israeli conflict as most Westeners do about the Taiwan issue or the civil war in Sri Lanka, in other words not at all. Last year, during the brief Israeli offensive in Gaza, it made a change to be in a country where practically everyone was completely indifferent, and just saw the event as a far away war which is no concern of theirs. The Holocaust and the whole history of the Jews (犹太人or Youtairen in Chinese) also don't elicit particularly strong feelings in most Chinese people, who only know about these things in the vaguest terms. Although there have been some Jewish communities in China in the past (in the photo you can see some Jews from Kaifeng, Henan, from the later 19th or early 20th century), they have always been few and far between, and their influence on Chinese history has been virtually none. Furthermore, none of these traditional communities have survived until this day, since they have all integrated into mainstream Chinese culture (perhaps the lack of persecution was the reason for their integration?).

Of course, the Chinese government officially embraced "Third World solidarity" and anti-imperialism in the past, and until the 1980s it had no relations with Israel and officially supported the PLO (even though Israel was one of the first countries in the world to recognize the People's Republic of China in 1948, the favour was not returned). However it never made a big thing of the Palestinian cause, which is simply too far from the concerns and the history of the Chinese. And in any case nowadays the whole ideology of international anti-imperialism has fallen out of fashion in China as well. In 1992, China and Israel established diplomatic ties, and the two countries now enjoy a fruitful economic and military relationship.

Although most Chinese people have no preconceived notions about Israel, they do seem to have one about Jews: they are very intelligent. Whenever I have mentioned to a Chinese person that I have Jewish origins on my mothers side, they usuallly look very pleased and say something like: "oh, that's good, the Jews are very intelligent." Educated Chinese people have usually heard that in the West there are masses of famous Jews in every field, and that this clearly points to some superior intelligence they have. (of course, there must be hundreds of millions of Chinese people who have never heard of the Jews at all, but that is another point). I remember that the first time I was in China, I was having a meal with a group of Chinese accademics in the city of Zhenjiang, in Jiangsu province. At some point I asked them if they had any opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of them said: "yes, I support Israel, because I have heard that the Jews are very intelligent."

Of course the idea that Jews are automatically "very intelligent" which many Chinese seem to have is also a kind of prejudice, but at least it is a positive one, and there do not seem to be any negative stereotypes about Jews circulating, which makes a nice change from Europe. The traditional Chinese respect for education and hard work means that the Jews' achievements are seen with respect, rather than suspicion. One Chinese girl did once tell me that "the Jews are very clever, and so they are very succesful in science, politics and business", but she didn't seem to attach any negative feelings towards being succesful in business, and this was only one of a list of things which the Jews are supposedly good at. I actualy feel that Jewish communities and Chinese ones around the world have quite a lot in common (although size is of course not one of them. There are more people in the Beijing municipality than Jews in the world). The position of the Chinese communities in South-East Asia, succesful but mistrusted and with no political clout, can't help but remind me of some Jewish communities of the past.

Who knows, in the unlikely event that Jews feel unwelcome in the West again, perhaps China and Asia might become a new haven for them, the more accepting, forward-looking places where the Jews could feel at home.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

To have or not to have the Chinese Swine flu Vaccine?

Here in China, public worry about swine flu is about as high as everywhere else in the world. Even though for a long time the Chinese authorities quarantined anyone who was found to have a temperature on entering the country, in the end the flu was obviously not deterred by such measures and penetrated China, just like you would expect from a flu.

There are different figures about how many people have died of it, depending on how the deaths are recorded, but it seems that around 40-60 people have already died of the illness in China, with dozens of thousands being infected. Here in Beijing, there seem to be even more people walking around with little masks on their faces than there usuallly are. A few weeks ago, a university student in a Beijing university died of swine flu (not in my university, fortunately), and hundreds of other students turned out to be infected.

The Chinese health authorities have already managed to domestically produce millions of swine flu vaccines, and they plan to vaccinate 65 million people (or 5% of the population) by the end of the year. Up to now, over 12 million people have already been vaccinated. Beijing receives priority of course, and they are talking of offering the opportunity to be vaccinated to all the Beijing residents very soon (but will it really be all the residents, or only those with a Beijing Hukou?). It must be said that China is the first country to be able to produce so many copies of a swine flu vaccine, but many are uncertain about the safety of this Chinese-made vaccine. It does seem a bit suspicious that China has been able to produce millions of vaccines before any other country, and it maybe that the vaccine's safety standards are not of the best. Many people are refusing to have the vaccination because of concerns over its quality.

Personally, I was offered the opportunity to be vaccinated last friday, alongside all the other students in my college (all the university's students in Beijing are being offered the vaccine), however after thinking about it a lot I decided to decline the offer. There have been a few cases of people having anaphylactic shocks after being vaccinated, and I do seeem to have a slight predisposition towards allergies. The message which we were given a few days previously about the vaccination was not encouraging. It stated that one should not take the vaccination if one is allergic to a long list of things, including eggs and some chemicals I have never heard of, and that anyone which chronic diseases (or of course a cold or a flu) should not be vaccinated. Finally, it asked those who would be vaccinated to wait on the premises for half an hour "to make sure they are ok". I have taken vaccines in the past, and I have never been asked if I was allergic to anything beforehand. I have certainly never been asked to wait half an hour after the vaccination in case I felt ill.

The whole tone of the message made it feel like the health authorities are not too confident of their own vaccine's safety, and this pushed me towards deciding not to take it. The next day, the headline on China's only English daily was "two die after H1N1 vaccine", although on closer inspection it appears that one of the two people died 8 hours later of a heart attack, and it was probably just coincidence, while the other case is still being investigated, and no news is available at present. In any case, it does seem that there are serious concerns over the vaccine's safety, and I personally know various other students, both foreign and Chinese, who decided against taking it. The day after the vaccination, a message was passed on to the foreign students who had taken it asking them not to shower for one week! Although there is some idea that one should not shower for a while after a vaccination, I have never heard of not showering for a week. I suppose no one will take the advice too seriously. My roomate, who was vaccinated, has certainly already showered without dropping dead.

Personally I feel that the risk posed by the vaccine is probably tiny, but the risk posed by swine flu is also extremely small at present. After all, 40-60 people dying in a nation of one and a half billion is not a cause for panic, is it? And most of them probably had underlying health conditions anyway. However, if the swine flu gets more widespreadd and takes more lives, I may still change my mind and get vaccinated. Plus, if most of Beijing does get vaccinated, that would also protect me up to a point I suppose.

I am aware of the fact that if I was back in Britain or Italy, I would still not have the chance to be vaccinated. However, with their huge population and limited resources, the Chinese authorities are probably so keen on avoiding a pandemic that they would be quite prepared to start using a vaccine before all the necessary safety checks were made. Of course, vaccines are never completely safe, and new ones less than ever. In other countries, people are also debating whether getting vaccinated is a good idea, as I have discovered by looking through the internet. The issue is confusing, but the for the time being I have decided to wait and see....

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Who decides when it snows and when the heating comes on in China?

Beijing was graced by its first snowfall this year last sunday. It is very unusual for it to snow so early in Beijing. Infact, it was the earliest snowfall in 22 years. However, there is more to it than just a freak weather phenomenon. The Chinese authorities quite often seem to engage with attempts to modify the weather, especially by inducing or increasing rain artificially over Beijing and the north of China to alleviate drought, which is often a problem in this arid region. Sunday's snowfall was at least partly induced by seeding the clouds with 186 doses of silver iodine. According to some reports, the aim was just to make it rain, not snow, but a sudden cold front which descended on sunday made it snow heavily, disrupting the traffic and power grid and delaying many flights. The temperature did indeed drop very suddenly between saturday and sunday, going from 13 degrees to below freezing. The weather forecast had already been reporting that it would snow for several days, and so I wonder how many days in advance the clouds had been seeded, if they were not expecting to produce snow. Others claim that the effect of these weather manipulation techniques is exagerated, and that it is impossible to predict what the result will be.

Anyway, another problem here in Beijing was that in most places, including my dorm, the heating was still not turned on when the snow came and temperatures outside dropped below
zero. The thing is that in China, the heating system is centralized. In the North of China, defined as everywhere north of the Yangtze river (or everywhere blue in the picture above), buildings usually have central heating, however it is not turned on until a specific set date, which in Beijing is usually november the 15th. Although some well off people and some offices have their own private heating systems, most people have to wait until the 15th of november for the heating to come on (it is then turned off on march the 15th.) It is well known that the two weeks before the heating comes on and after it comes off are the most uncomfortable time. This year however, they have decided to turn the heating on early here in Beijing, due to the unseasonal cold. They finally turned the heating on in my dorm on monday, although we had already experienced some pretty chilly nights, and I was forced to buy myself an extra blanket. Today it's a bit warmer outside, and they've turned the heating off again.

In some northern regions which are technically in Siberia, the heating comes on earlier. However, in the whole of Southern China, that is South of the Yangtze, it doesn't come on at all. Although again some wealthy people may have private heating, the vast majority just don't have any. Although the winters in the South are much less cold than in the North, with the temperature rarely dropping below zero, it is still unpleasantly cold inside the houses sometimes, and people often keep their coats on even inside. When I visited the south of China during the last Spring festival, I got used to keeping my coat on inside the hotel room or house I was staying in, and getting undressed to have a shower was always unpleasant.