October 12th 2013

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Articles from this issue:

ENVIRONMENT: IPCC report ignites new row over global warming

MARRIAGE: Same-sex marriage: is it harmless?

TASMANIA: Labor premier and Greens to legalise medicalised killing

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Tony Abbott's first major test: stopping the boats

EDITORIAL: The Abbott government gets down to work...

OPINION: Why Australia should acquire US-built nuclear submarines

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Challenges loom after Angela Merckel's election win

POPULATION: China may be too late to avert demographic disaster

POLITICAL IDEAS: Replacing agribusinesses with family farms

LIFE ISSUES: Culture of death and our missing moral compass

HISTORY: How King Alfred's reputation fell victim to political correctness

OPINION: David Marr and the white whale

CULTURE: How television can stupefy or stimulate our minds

BOOK REVIEW A rogues' gallery

BOOK REVIEW Intellectual rivals

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China may be too late to avert demographic disaster

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, October 12, 2013

China is likely to ditch its one-child policy as demographic disaster looms, according to well-connected correspondent Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in London’s Daily Telegraph (September 25, 2013). But many experts are not convinced that the effects of this horrendous policy can be overcome. China’s leaders are realising, probably too late, that this policy is bad for China and disastrous for the economy.

The one-child policy has been a humanitarian catastrophe. It has resulted in 336 million abortions and 222 million sterilisations. We can confidently assume that the great majority of these procedures were performed under duress.

Since the advent of freely available pregnancy ultrasounds, the rate of boys to girls peaked at 120 to 100 live births. It has now settled at 117 to 100. A shortage of female births means there are six men to five women in “dating age” (15–30). This has led to a growth in commercial sex and kidnappings of fertile women, particularly in rural areas. Also, most men must own a house or have sufficient money for a deposit before they can propose to a girl, thus forcing up house prices.

The one-child policy, however, has never been uniformly enforced. Shanghai, China’s commercial capital, has one of the lowest birth rates in the world at 0.6 children for each woman. For some time, Shanghai couples who are both from single-child families have been permitted to have two children. Farming families have been permitted to have two children if the first child was a girl.

In some areas of China, such as Henan Province in the centre of the country — China’s most populous province — the one-child policy has never been rigorously enforced. In other areas, the wealthy are able to pay “fines” that allow them to expand their families. Ethnic minorities are excluded from the policy. As with most things about China, what is supposed to happen and the actual results are not entirely congruent.

China’s looming demographic winter will have a profound effect on the economy. Her economic boom has depended on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheap labour as workers have moved from the country to the cities. In 2010, China had a 150 million-strong rural labour surplus. By 2020, the labour supply will be in equilibrium. In the early 2030s, there will be a labour shortage of 140 million.

This is likely to be exacerbated by the hukou system. The hukou is an internal passport connected to the holder’s place of residence. If a worker moves from Henan Province to Beijing, he has no rights — no pension, his children can’t go to school, and so on.

These people are known as “migrant workers”. If the worker gets a competitive offer near home, he won’t leave. This will deprive the labour-hungry manufacturers near the coast of the workers they need.

The proportion of China’s population that is of working age peaked three years ago and is now beginning a rapid decline, according to the UK’s Financial Times (August 19, 2013). The proportion of people over 65 will double by the early 2030s. By 2050, there will be only 1.6 workers for each retired person. The People’s Daily in Beijing says that the elderly in China now number 194 million; by 2025 the figure will be 300 million.

Babies can’t be produced simply by turning a tap on and off. China is still a poor country, and it will be the first country to grow old before it grows rich. Compared to Japan, South Korea and Western Europe, China is not even a middle-income country. As Stratfor comments (August 21, 2013), we are witnessing “an unprecedented demographic problem take shape”.

The attitude of the Chinese people to the one-child policy is equivocal. When I ask Chinese people about the one-child policy, they usually say “there are too many people in China”. These days, many women don’t want more than one child, or even any children at all. They say children are too expensive and too much trouble.

Children have changed from being investment goods to consumption goods. That is, in an agricultural society, children work on the land. The more children you have, the more hands there are to work the farm and to look after you in your old age. Children are thus seen as an investment.

In an urban society — and China has been rapidly urbanising — children cost money. You have children because they give you pleasure. You “consume” them. They don’t make you money; they cost you money. Thus, in the transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society, the birth rate will inevitably fall. This usually happens when a society is wealthy, but China is not wealthy.

China will soon rue the missing millions of babies it has slaughtered. Fertility is not easy to turn around. Singapore first started down the one-child road, but now the government wants more babies. Singapore’s women are not co-operating, and Singapore has one of the world’s lowest birth rates.

Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, who spent several years in China and has visited most of the country’s provinces and major cities. 

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