Too many bachelors and too many grandmas

The minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission at a press conference on family planning The world’s grandest social experiment has failed. And it has done so on a grand scale. But those who conducted the experiment are yet to fathom the magnitude of the crisis they will soon have to endure.
China’s State Population and Family Planning Commission (SPFPC) reported on January 11 that by 2020 some 30 million Chinese men will not be able to find wives because of the population sex imbalance created by 30 years of the one-child family policy. The report said the sex imbalance, which in some parts of the country means as many as 130 males to every 100 females, "may lead to social instability". Given that understatement is a characteristic of the Chinese Government when it discusses national problems, this means that it is alarmed.
Thirty million men without wives: this is greater than the population of most countries. It is the equivalent of every single Canadian never being able to marry. Without wives and families at home after a day's hard slog, what will these young men, many of whom are likely to come from less educated segments of society, to do of an evening?
Ironically, in a country where daughters are unwanted, the kidnapping of young girls is an all-too-common phenomenon. While most of them are sold into prostitution in China and other parts of Asia, a new market is emerging for the criminals involved in this despicable business – peasant families eager to find wives for their sons.
Coupled with the sex imbalance, the one-child policy has also created the world’s fastest ageing population. The population aged over 60 will more than quadruple to 430 million by 2040, while the number of people of working age will significantly reduce as a direct and intended consequence of the one-child policy. Do the math – this is a Titanic gunning for an iceberg.
The SPFPC’s solution to the problem which it created is to educate families on the value of having female children; to stop sex-selection abortions through more stringent adherence to the law; and, to improve China’s social welfare and pension programs. (Oh – and as a throwaway, some voices within the Government also recommend putting a stop to foreign adoptions of unwanted female babies so that unwanted female children will stay in China. No thought is given to the extra strain on the public purse if the Government were to take over responsibility for care and education of all these young girls for 14 or 15 years of their lives.)
You don’t have to be an economist or policy wonk to realize that the SPFPC’s prescriptions are wishful thinking on a grand scale. But grand scale is the way every thing is done in China.
Let’s consider why the SPFPC’s remedies won’t work.
First, the thorny issue of sex selection and enforcing the rule of law. It is true that China has long outlawed sex selective abortions. Indeed, it has also long been illegal for a doctor to tell expecting parents the sex of their babies. But the very concept of the rule of law is scoffed at by the average Chinese. Ask any foreign company trying to protect intellectual property rights about the rule of law in China. The most stringent laws and penalties to stop sex selection in China have not worked. Parents will continue to bribe doctors to find out the sex of their unborn babies and doctors will continue to accept bribes to abort unwanted girls.
The Commission also recommended educating people in rural areas – where sex selection is highest – on the worth of female children. It proposes the adoption of slogans like "having a daughter is as good as having a son." But propaganda like this is unlikely to work on peasant families contemplating a future of falling farm incomes and minuscule Government pensions in their old age. Because of their greater strength boys are better suited to taking over their parents’ small plots of land or to working on highly-paid construction sites in the big cities.
Another factor that needs to be addressed stems from deep-rooted cultural values. Traditionally males inherit their family businesses and the responsibility for the care of their parents. A girl, on the other hand, marries into her husband’s family. His parents’ welfare then takes precedence over that of her parents. This runs so deep that the Chinese words referring to maternal grandparents mean "outside grandfather" and "outside grandmother" -- outside the family, that is. Sadly, it is going to take more than a few slogans to change this situation and elevate girls to a position of respect and dignity in China’s rural areas.
Looking for a wifeThe SPFPC concluded its report by proclaiming that the one child policy had largely been successful because China’s population will peak at 1.5 billion in 2033. The report said China’s silver lining lay in the fact that it would have a plentiful supply of human labour "for a long time to come." However, this silver lining is tarnished by a number of other factors raised in the report and other well known statistics. For example the report highlights the fact that China will experience the single largest migration in human history over the next 20 years as 300 million people leave rural areas to seek work in towns and cities. This is going to place social services under unprecedented strains. Already more than 100 million itinerant workers travel the length and breadth of China looking for work – work that many of them can’t find. The report did not explain the Government’s policy to create 300 million new jobs in its towns and cities in order to ease the pain of this shift of human resources. Perhaps it doesn't have one.
China’s success will depend on the large foreign investment it has been receiving for the past 25 years to continue for another 25 years. The country must continue to achieve double digit economic growth for that period in order to provide employment opportunities and rising incomes for its population.
However, newly emerging economic data paints an altogether different, bleaker picture of the future. Foreign investment that has driven Chinese growth has started to slow as more and more multinational corporations become concerned about the risks associated with high investment in China. Already many companies speak openly of a "China plus one strategy", which means they are diversifying their Asian investment portfolios to other countries in the region, rather than placing all their eggs in the China basket. It is no longer a matter of "China or bust"; it has become a case of "if only China, bust."
An ironic outcome of the one-child policy and high economic growth is a shortage of skilled labour which has pushed up the price of employment. China’s seemingly endless supply of workers is no longer attractive to foreign companies because salaries in coastal cities have exploded for all but the most basic of positions. In Shanghai, a domestic servant – a reasonably low level job – costs as much as US$125 per month before Government employment taxes and other costs are even factored in. At the same time foreign companies have resisted the government’s invitation to invest in China’s interior because of poor infrastructure and the absence of local consumer markets there.
Another feature driving the decision of foreign companies to diversify investment to other markets like Vietnam or Malaysia is that the promise of China’s consumer market has remained largely illusory. Evidence suggests that China’s emerging middle class is smaller than Government statistics have suggested. At the same time Chinese consumers continue to have one of the highest savings rates in the world – a dynamic driven by fear of insufficient incomes to maintain reasonable standards of living in retirement.
The one-child family policy has meant that consumption-driven growth will be further frustrated.
Last year official records showed that more than 85,000 riots and civil disturbances had occurred around China, mainly in impoverished rural areas. The actual number of such disturbances is thought to be far higher. China’s one-child family policy is expected to exacerbate the situation.
Perhaps Chairman Mao was right about one thing. Fearful of foreign invasion, he believed China could only secure its future through people power. He developed China’s "human wave" military doctrine and exhorted the then young nation to increase its population. A new "human wave" theory might now be needed to help China out of some difficult social and economic problems.
Constance Kong is the pen name of a business consultant in Shanghai.


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