China's one-child policy in the balance

The twentieth century fetish for population control has been particularly hard on China. Mao Zedong thought there was strength in numbers and talked the birth rate up to 5.8 births per woman in 1970. With the imposition of family planning ideology in the 1970s it came crashing down to 2.2. At the end of the 1970s Deng Xiaoping, chief architect of China's economic reform and opening to the outside world, pushed the downward trend further with the infamous one-child policy -- enforced by fines, sterilisations and abortions up to the present.

If there were any doubts as to how seriously the policy has been pursued they are countered by new research showing that 63 per cent of Chinese couples are strictly limited to one child, and the actual fertility rate is 1.5 children per couple -- very close to the target rate of 1.47.

But there are signs that the people are sick of being bullied in this way. Newly rich urbanites who can afford to pay the fines are adding illicit children to their families, apparently undeterred by a naming and shaming campaign. Rural families, who are generally poor, have also broken the one (or two) child rule over the years but are less able to pay the fines and also seem to have suffered more from periodic enforcement campaigns.

The one-child policy is a gross violation of human rights. It is a violent intrusion of the state into the marital relationship which robs the couple of their dignity and their child of siblings. It reduces the family to the status of a cog in the great national machine just as much as Mao's collectivism did. 

One such blitz occurred in the Guangxi region of south-west China from February to the end of April. According to mainly unofficial reports, local government workers were drafted into family planning work squads and sent out to round up women for pregnancy tests or, in the case of historic violations, demand fines as high as 10,000 yuan (US$1300) -- in an area where most annual incomes are about 1000 yuan. If people did not pay up in three days their belongings were seized and, if they resisted, their homes were destroyed.

Two weekends ago the fury of farmers at this brutal campaign boiled over in rioting at several towns. Protestors gathered at municipal headquarters where they verbally and physically attacked officials, overturned vehicles and smashed and burned at least one building and other property.

At one level this riot was just another expression of resentment at the growing rich-poor gap between the booming urban economy and the struggling countryside -- there are tens of thousands of "mass incidents" a year in the provinces. Yet it is not surprising that the one-child policy has become a symbol of other grievances.

The one-child policy is a gross violation of human rights. It is a violent intrusion of the state into the marital relationship which robs the couple of their dignity and their child of siblings. It reduces the family to the status of a cog in the great national machine just as much as Mao's collectivism did. It has negative social effects -- including those arising from the "gendercide" of unborn girls and a badly-skewed sex ratio -- that are yet to be fully felt.

That it continues to have the approval of the world's rich white club is predictable but shameful. Human rights and the dignity of ordinary people do not count when there are bucks to be made. That, at least, was the attitude implied by one western expert at a gathering of Australian businessmen in Shanghai earlier this month. Clint Laurent¸ a New Zealander who is managing director of Hong Kong-based Global Demographics, was full of enthusiasm for the achievements of China's draconian population policy.

The figures, he revealed, are even better than generally thought. Analysis of China's year 2000 census, combined with other more recent data, including school enrolments, shows that the Asian giant's population has been overestimated. Instead of 95 million children younger than five there are 64 million -- one third less, indicating an average of 12.8 million births a year. If that figure stills sounds like a population explosion to some, they can take comfort from Laurent's forecast that it will decline to a mere six million by 2026. Indeed, even over the next 10 years China will account for a modest 5 per cent of all births in the world as against North America's 6 per cent and India's 33 per cent.

This means that China's population is changing rapidly. Over the next twenty years the number of people under 24 will fall by half and the number of people over 50 will increase by 71 per cent. The workforce will stop growing as soon as 2009. The main shift of workers from the countryside to the towns has already occurred, meaning that there is no new source of labour to be tapped. Total production (GDP) will slow much sooner than expected.

Doesn't that sound like a host of economic and social problems on the near horizon, as others have warned? Doesn't it mean that it is time to abandon the offensive and inhuman population policy?

No, says Laurent, an ageing China is "a dream scenario". It means that productivity, per capita income and living standards will rise. The education budget can go into better education for children and into vocational training to provide skilled, more productive workers. Better-paid urban workers will spend more on eating out and other luxuries. As they get older and their one child leaves home they will travel more. (In strategic economic talks this week, Washington and Beijing agreed to facilitate group tourism from China to the US.) All in all, market prospects are better than ever if foreign businesses start thinking of quality rather than quantity, of "market share, not market size".

So, no problems at all? What about social support of the elderly with only one or two children, often located in distant cities? Laurent suggests that Japan is the model here: as more of the population (women) works and people retire later, he predicts that each worker will need to support less than one dependent person. Rural decay? Big agricultural corporations will take over. Forty million surplus males aged 15-39 by 2026? "Form an army to keep them busy?" suggests Laurent in a throwaway line which, aside from being likely to annoy the Pentagon, refuses to engage with the human suffering and social threat which this particular outcome of population control represents.

What would happen to his "dream" scenario, however, if the Chinese government were to ditch its increasingly unpopular one-child policy? You would think, from the way the government is behaving, that the Chinese would immediately obey their natural instincts and produce a massive baby boom. Laurent, however, thinks little would change. Wang Feng, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine, suspects the same.

They believe that a western style economy and the values associated with it will continue to keep birth rates low. In other words, the Chinese will behave just like us, allowing family aspirations to be dominated by the attractions and pressures of a consumer society. No other country, they note, has reversed the trend of "below replacement" fertility.

If these predictions turn out to be correct, China would take its place in the world as a sort of colony of western-style materialism. After all that its people have suffered in the name of ideological uniqueness, what a terrible irony that would be.

If the experts are wrong, however, and if the Chinese are finally fed up with being pushed around, China will have some vital lessons to teach the rest of the world.

Carolyn Moynihan is the Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.



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