A PAINFUL LEGACY

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Understanding how the infamous one-child policy led China towards the path of a demographic disaster from which it might never recover.


 

In 2022, according to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s population shrank for the first time in sixty years. That means the country had more deaths than births for the first time in six decades. To understand the seriousness of the issue, you have to take into account China’s identity on the global stage. The second-largest economy in the world is a global manufacturing superpower. The core strength of its manufacturing dominance is primarily facilitated by its vast population. Although China’s population now stands at 1.4 billion people, it is projected to shrink by nearly half by the end of the century. Over the years, China’s growth and policies have contributed to its population decline. Currently, it’s looking to reverse course to keep its population steady. The problem is it might be too late.

 

 

THE BIRTH OF THE ONE-CHILD POLICY

China’s one-child policy was implemented in 1979 to curb population growth and support economic development. The policy came after years of rapid population growth, with the country’s population increasing by over 100 million from 1949 to 1957, reaching 646.5 million by the end of 1957. A family planning slogan ‘Late, Long and Few’ began circulating, encouraging later marriages, longer intervals between births, and fewer children. The one-child policy was introduced in 1979, requiring families with a child to apply for a family planning service certificate. By 1982, the family planning policy was enshrined in the constitution. The policy’s impact was significant, with the government estimating that it averted 400 million births. China’s fertility rate fell from nearly 6 children per woman in 1950 to only 2.3 in 1980. Starting in 1990, however, the policy was more vigorously enforced and followed. In that year, the crude birth rate fell by 20%, initiating a sharp decline. By the late 1990s, fertility had fallen to just over 1.5 children per woman as ‘one and done’ increasingly became the norm. According to estimates from the United Nations, China’s fertility was 1.16 in 2021 – finally achieving the ‘one child’ goal after 40 years.

 

A DEMOGRAPHIC DISASTER

In 2015, the Chinese government made a rare admission of a mistake, when it ended its historic and coercive one-child policy. The Communist Party ruling announced that all married couples could have up to two children, reversing the policy that had helped create the ‘mother of all demographic dividends.’ This term refers to the boost in the economy that results when a country’s birth and death rates both decline. From 1980 to 2015, China’s working-age population grew from 594 million to over 1 billion, and its dependency ratio, which measures the total young and elderly population relative to the working-age population, fell from over 68% to less than 38%. This demographic shift meant more workers for every non-working person, and it fueled China’s economic growth. However, this started reversing and quickly turned into a demographic nightmare.

Over the past decade, hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens have reached retirement age, and there are fewer young people to replace them. China’s dependency ratio is expected to rise to over 44% by 2050, meaning that there will be fewer workers to support a growing number of non-working dependents. This shift poses a significant challenge for China’s economy, which has relied on a large and productive working-age population to fuel its growth. The Chinese government has responded to this challenge by reversing its one-child policy, but it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to offset the effects of an ageing population.

 

 

WHY CHINA’S AGEING CHALLENGE IS SO GRAVE?

While many developed nations grapple with ageing populations, China’s demographic challenge is particularly daunting. Despite being the world’s second-largest economy, the country’s per capita income still lags far behind developed nations like the US and UK. Closing this gap would require sustained high-powered economic growth, which is becoming increasingly challenging in a country. China may find itself growing old before it gets rich. The costs of an ageing population will be borne disproportionately by China’s elderly citizens.

According to a 2013 study, nearly a quarter of the country’s seniors live below the poverty line. Unlike many other East Asian nations, China lacks comprehensive old-age support, and the legacy of the one-child policy has resulted in an inverted population pyramid with four grandparents and two parents depending on one child. China’s ageing population presents a grave challenge that requires urgent attention. Without significant reforms and investment, the country risks a future in which its elderly population struggles with poverty and inadequate support. As China seeks to address this problem, it will need to find innovative solutions that balance economic growth with social welfare.

 

HEAVY SOCIAL TOLL

Perhaps one of the worst unintended consequences of the policy is the prevalence of significant gender imbalance in Chinese society, with more males than females, as families were limited to having only one child, and in many cases, couples preferred to have a male child. This preference for male children was due to cultural factors, such as the expectation that sons would care for their parents in old age and carry on the family name. As a result, many families resorted to sex-selective abortions, infanticide, or abandonment of female babies so that they could have a male child. The practice of gender-selective abortion was further encouraged by the widespread availability of ultrasound technology, which allowed parents to determine the sex of their unborn child. The consequences of this preference for male children have been far-reaching. According to official data, in 2020, there were approximately 33 million more males than females in China. This gender imbalance has created several social and economic problems for the country. For example, the surplus of males has led to an increase in violent crime and social unrest, as well as a rise in human trafficking and prostitution. Furthermore, the shortage of females has created difficulties for men looking for partners, increasing the demand for ‘bride trafficking’ from neighbouring countries.

 

 

THE DOUBLE INCOME, NO KIDS LIFESTYLE

As China’s younger generations opt for the ‘double income, no kids’ lifestyle, the country faces a looming crisis of elderly citizens without familial support. One survey predicts that by 2050, there will be 79 million childless older adults in China. Meanwhile, the burden of caring for elderly parents is cited as one reason young Chinese have fewer or no children, further exacerbating the problem. This situation was unavoidable. The fertility transition, where fertility rates drop as countries become more affluent, is a demographic inevitability. China’s fertility rate of six to seven children per woman in the mid-1960s had to decrease for the government to develop as it has. However, the one-child policy continued beyond the point where it made economic or demographic sense, damaging China’s ability to manage the transition. As China’s population continues to age, it must address the challenges of supporting a growing number of elderly citizens without familial support. The country must find ways to provide adequate support for its ageing population while balancing economic growth and social welfare. The solution will require a careful balancing act and innovative solutions to manage this demographic shift.

 

CHINA, BE KINDER TO YOUR WOMEN

China isn’t the only country trying to raise sagging birth rates, but it is by far the only country to have shed so much of its population without war or pestilence. It did so by introducing the one-child policy, a radical, long-running social experiment that was vicious, inhumane, violated everyone’s reproductive rights, and resulted in a wildly uneven distribution by sex.

Unfortunately, when they need to reverse the course of action, the CCP is looking to control women’s fertility rights all over again. As a result, the Chinese Communist Party is now turning to women and exhorting – some say hounding – them to have more children. While the goal of the two- and three-child policy is to encourage, not discourage, births, it is still the same story as the one-child policy in the sense that women end up being punished for their fertility, one way or the other.

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