China’s Cassandra prophecy

The Government’s 2020 vision has been blind-sided by a think tank's report on its population policy disaster
Constance Kong | Jan 25 2010 | comment  

Just a dream for 24 million men in ChinaTo say that China’s one-child family policy has been a disaster is an understatement. A report released earlier this month by the nation’s top think tank – the Communist Government’s Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) - says that the policy has created a huge gender imbalance with significant implications for future social stability.

Indeed, according to the report, 24 million men reaching marriageable age by 2020 will never marry because of the sex imbalance. Think of it in these terms: what if the entire population of New York City or of Australia was never able to marry. Imagine the social implications in a city or nation that large where no one can marry. Imagine if that city or country is comprised solely of 24 million men; men with no homes to return to at night; men without the responsibilities of a family to keep them engaged in productive pursuits.

The CASS report – carrying the understated title “Contemporary Chinese Social Structure” - raises some key questions but it is short on answers.

Since the report was published many Chinese bloggers have been commenting on its implications. Some more daring Chinese netizens have highlighted that many boys entering puberty are oblivious to the fact that they will never be able to marry; they ask which parents wish to tell their sons to prepare for a bleak future alone – unable to find a wife and unable to establish their own families. Interestingly the CASS report termed those condemned to bachelorhood “bare branches” because they would not be able to establish family trees of their own.

How China got to this pitiful state is well documented. A rigid one child per family policy, legal and easily available abortion, and a cultural and economic preference for sons, resulted in sex selective abortions since the early 1980s. Laws to deter such behaviour have failed resoundingly. For example, obtaining knowledge of an unborn baby’s sex from ultrasounds was made illegal to stop abortions of baby girls by the 1990s. But throughout China’s rural villages and towns it remains possible to bribe staff in medical clinics and hospitals to find out the sex of an expected child. Once the parents decide to abort an unborn baby, Chinese law does not require them to carry an unborn baby girl to term.

More girls than boys are aborted. Many more. So much more that Mao Zedong’s words – to emphasise the equality of the sexes - that “women hold up half the sky” will soon ring hollow.

Of course, China has never really given women true equality. Whether it was foot-binding – an atrocious practice only finally outlawed by the Communists – or the Communists telling women how many children they may have, Chinese women have long been denied the right to determine their own futures, especially when it has come to their most basic right, the right of reproduction. The fact that women in China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission promote the policy does not make it any the less repressive of women.

The main concern raised by the CASS report is that 24 million men condemned to a life alone will result in a major strain on the State welfare system. Essentially, without families of their own to care for them as this generation starts ageing, the State will need to step in with sufficient pension funds and aged care facilities for the old bachelors of the latter decades of the 21st Century.

But other problems – such as a rising incidence of prostitution and violent crime - are on the horizon, judging by some current trends.

For example, while the number of baby girls being born has declined, the number of kidnappings and trafficking of young girls has risen. According to the National Population and Family Planning Commission – that’s right, the very organization responsible for the one child family policy --  abductions and trafficking of women and girls has become “rampant”.

Young girls are being kidnapped within China and also from neighboring countries (Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand) by organized gangs who sell them to families with boys of a similar age. The girls will be raised by the families and given as brides to their sons as soon as they reach marriageable age. Others are shipped to brothels within China for a life as sex slaves.

Needless to say China’s neighbours are not enamored of the growing practice. Diplomatic tensions have risen over the issue and China has had to establish a special police unit to help its neighbours combat the very crime its policy has created.

Even more bizarre crimes have been reported in this patriarchal society where it is believed that a wife is necessary to tend to her husband even after death. A rising practice in some remote areas of China is to dig up the corpses of single women to sell to families whose sons may have recently perished. Posthumous wedding ceremonies are held to ensure the deceased son does not have to endure the next life alone. With higher prices commanded by fresh corpses of young women the practice has led to murders of young girls by some crime gangs looking to capitalize on distraught parents enduring the loss of a young son.

It appears the CASS report has merely touched the tip of the iceberg. But it is interesting that the nation’s top Government think-tank is publicly discussing the matter. Could the public airing of the coming social problems caused by the one-child family policy mean that the Government is ready to repeal the policy? Or has CASS just made a Cassandra prophecy?

Indeed, it seems unlikely the Government will pay too much attention to the real implications of the report. More likely the Government will only continue tinkering at the edges of the policy.

For the past couple of years, China has allowed married couples in its larger cities, where both members of the couple are themselves the only children of their parents, to have two children. In all probability, China is only going to extend this privilege to its smaller cities and maybe to some towns in rural areas. This belief is supported by the fact that the Government continues to argue the overall success of the one child family policy in reducing China’s population by around 400 million.

As long as the Government believes the country is over-populated it will not rescind its policy – no matter what the costs. Short of a change of Government (not very likely in this nation where, as Mao put it, “power comes from the barrel of a gun” rather than the ballot box), the focus on reducing population size in China is here to stay.

But even if China totally repealed the one-child family policy today, it would be too late for today’s generation of teenage boys. By 2020 some 24 million men will start realizing that a family life is not for them – no matter how much they yearn for it. China should expect them to be just a little angry.

Constance Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based business consultant.

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