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.


Anonymous said...

I believe that this problem wouldn't exist if only there weren't such big countries. I mean it would be better, idealistically, to organize the world in smaller and spontaneous communities in order to avoid these "organization" problems.

Ji Xiang said...

yes, but that isn't really a solution, because even if the world were divided into much smaller countries, the amount of people would still be the same. It's like saying that if Europe really were just one big country, than the big population would be a problem, but since it's divided into lots of smaller counntries, then it doesn't matter.

Anonymous said...

You're mathematically very right ;-)