16 September 2019
An aging population and the growing gender imbalance have pushed Beijing to end its 36-year-old one-child policy. Photo: Bloomberg
An aging population and the growing gender imbalance have pushed Beijing to end its 36-year-old one-child policy. Photo: Bloomberg

You owe everything to the party, even your babies

Beijing scrapped its one-child policy at a recent communist party plenum, and allowed Chinese couples to have a second baby. The move is interpreted as the party’s glad tidings to its people.

The primitive desire for plentiful offspring is deeply rooted in the traditional Chinese philosophy about family values and filial piety. The policy loosening fits well into that thinking.

Yet the fact is that decades of stringent birth control have distorted China’s demographic pattern, with the two gravest challenges being a rapidly aging population and worsening gender imbalance: females are far fewer than members of the opposite sex, especially in the prime marriageable ages.

Some mainland scholars, in fact, have proposed polyandry to remedy the situation.

Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen once developed a model to estimate the number of “missing females” in Asia’s developing countries based on statistical analysis of sex imbalance.

From 1979 – when Beijing adopted the one-child policy – to 1990, the number of “missing females” in China was estimated at 50 million.

Beijing’s previous birth control policy, widely denounced for human rights violations, was a drastic rectification of Mao Zedong’s “more babies” mandate after 1949. (Mao believed that many hands lightened the labor, especially when it comes to fighting capitalism.)

Beijing exploited the nation’s demographic dividend with the one-child policy, which should have been abolished in the 1990s or 2000s.

Top cadres didn’t realize the gravity of the population problems until in 2012 when the size of China’s labor force peaked and started to shrink.

When the one-child policy was launched, the Chinese population was very young: the median age stood at 21.7 in 1980 with a moderate elderly dependency ratio.

Since each couple was allowed to have only one baby, child dependency ratio plunged. The reduced proportion of non-productive dependents greatly accelerated China’s economic advancement.

But now the demographic dividend has turned into a demographic sinkhole as demand for Chinese exports waned and the median age climbed to 37. Chinese workers will face a heavier burden if they choose to have more babies.

Then, what will happen in 15 years when the new generation of “baby boomers”, those born after Beijing’s birth policy shift, reaches their prime school years?

The population’s median age will reach 44 and it’s very likely that many will still have to support their retired parents and even grandparents.

The situation by then will be a complete turnaround from the demographic dividend seen in the past 30 years.

Some say Beijing’s new two-child policy is “better late than never”, but I fear it won’t change anything.

China always keeps its total fertility rate (TFR) a secret and some pro-government researchers put the figure at 1.8 in recent years – on average a female will give birth to 1.8 babies in her lifetime – close to the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 births per woman for most industrialized countries.

But others suggest that China’s actual TFR can be as low as 1.2 since 2010.

If 1.8 is reliable, then a simple calculation will reveal that 80 percent of mainland women have already had their second child. If that is the case, then the two-child policy won’t bring any noticeable effect.

My own estimate is that China’s TFR is at 1.5 this year and linear calculations tell us that in three generations – a generation spans 30 years in demographic terms – China’s total population will drop to 800 million in the 2100s.

Beijing may have to scrap all its family planning policies.

Both Japan and Nazi Germany encouraged parenthood before World War II. With Adolf Hitler’s mandate to purify the German people – the supposedly superior Aryan race – the Nazis spread the idea that libido, sex and childbearing are all patriotic.

In 1935 Lebensborn e.V. (Fount of Life) was set up in Munich with the goal of raising the birth rate of Aryan children via extramarital sex, like arranging young, unmarried women to have intercourse with members of the Schutzstaffel, the Nazi Party’s paramilitary organization, and the babies to be adopted by racially pure families.

Sex and childbearing are no longer private, individual affairs but an obligation to the autocrat and the regime, especially during war or military aggression. The more babies you have, the more patriotic you are considered by the party.

To some extent, Nazi Germany’s Lebensborn and Beijing’s now defunct one-child policy bear some similarities: people’s right to raise a family freely is always sacrificed by the will of the regime and its supreme leader.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 2.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal