Monday, November 1, 2010

China Contends with Its Population Growth

On November 1 China begins its latest census count. It seems a good time to discuss the population and the issues associated with it. Data on population figures are available from the United Nations population database. A description of China’s formal policy can be found here. Elizabeth C. Conway has written an informative book, The River Runs Black. Its main focus is on environmental issues. Since population and environment are tightly coupled, she incorporates some interesting historical background.

Economy documents how concerns about the impact of China’s population on the environment first surfaced centuries ago. Each time an initiative was formulated to address the issue it was trumped by concerns about the security of the state. Traditionally, the Chinese have looked at their large population as a source of strength and financial health. Each baby born was a potential soldier, or certainly a tax payer.

The last, and perhaps greatest, miscalculation in this era was by Mao. He continued to encourage population growth as a source of national security. It was not until the late 70s that this policy was reversed. The chart above indicates accelerated population growth through the 60s and 70s.

The “one-child policy” was officially put into action in 1979. The curve in the population plot clearly diminishes in growth rate by about the mid-90s, but the population still continues to grow. One of the reasons might be the fact that a large number of loopholes were incorporated in the law. Rural families, ethnic minorities, and parents who themselves had no siblings were all excluded from the law. It also does not extend to the territories of Tibet, Hong Kong or Macau. Various other exceptions that are available, or just taken, yield the fraction of the population actually subject to the rule at about 36 percent. The law is also self-terminating since all the one-child offspring will no longer be bound by the law.

It is not clear that the one-child policy actually had a significant affect on the national birthrate. The birthrate started to decline in the early 70s before it was implemented. The subsequent decline in fertility is similar to what is observed in societies when economic conditions change: as wealth increases, the birthrate decreases. Large-scale migrations from the countryside to urban environments may also have played a role.

What is clear is that the policy caused considerable grief on an individual level, and seems to have induced some societal changes that were not intended.

In 1981 the male-to-female ratio at birth was 1.08, a number only slightly larger than the natural number. By 1990 the ratio had climbed to 1.11. It was 1.17 in 2000, and 1.20 in 2005. These are average numbers so there will be regions where the ratio is even larger. Chinese society has traditionally favored male children over female. Limiting a family to one child seems to have encouraged either the abortion of female fetuses or infanticide. The consequences of this distortion in the population are not known, but clearly this is not what nature intended.

Chinese society cherishes family ties. Children are expected to care for their parents in their old age. With single-child families, a lone worker may be forced into what the Chinese refer to as the “four-two-one problem:’ one person supporting themselves, two parents, and four grandparents. This puts everyone involved at greater financial risk in a country where state sources of help are meager.

The single-child policy is due to be overcome by events and cancelled in the next five or ten years. Draconian measures may have lowered the birthrate, but China is left with an ever-growing population. It may have to lower its birthrate the old-fashioned way—by lifting several hundred million more Chinese out of poverty and into the middle class. Unfortunately, the resources required to do that might render China’s environment nearly uninhabitable.

I am lucky to be able to watch these interesting proceedings from afar. I sure wouldn’t want to be responsible for solving these problems.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged