china and children

Posted on February 29, 2008


What does a government do about something as delicate, and personal, as population?

Should it even be involved in the first place?

For China, the world’s most populous country with 1.3 billion people, it is a matter of top priority. It would have had an even larger population, had it not imposed its strict one-child policy.

But it is now rethinking that.

It is a tough, migraine-inducing proposition. How should the policy be changed to balance the needs of the country against the desire of many couples to have two children, rather than just one? And in what manner should it introduce changes, so that it would not lead to a sudden spike in population and the problems that accompany it?

The authorities know that it cannot continue without at least some tweaks to the current policy.

Keep the policy and the country could soon end up with the demographic problem seen in many of today’s developed countries — too few young people supporting a much larger elderly population by bearing the burden of paying for social services through higher taxes, the classic “inverted triangle” population graph.

Continue with it longer and China’s male-female ratio would be even more lop-sided than it already is. No thanks to a pervasive paternalistic and sexist mindset, Chinese families prize boys as the preferred sex needed to continue the family name, so female foetuses are disproportionately aborted, or baby girls abandoned.

A 2000 census demonstrated how unnatural China’s birth rate is. 117 baby boys were born for every 100 girls, a reversal of statistics in countries with more normal trends. As of 2004, China also has 16 million more men than women below the age of 30.

But after thirty years of the one-child policy, the ironic side-effect is the shortage of women to marry the many men in the country, a potentially explosive and destabilizing social problem. It is not uncommon to hear stories of women being kidnapped by criminal gangs as the demand for brides increases. That repugnant practice will not end soon, as some studies have projected that China might have up to 40 million bachelors by 2020.

The Chinese government has also had an ugly history of forcing women to abort their pregnancies and imposing sterilization on both sexes in the 1970s and 80s, to meet population projections satisfactory to the authorities.

These problems are the key considerations behind the Chinese government’s potential change of heart about the one-child policy.

But should it loosen the policy, it could also be faced with a different set of problems.

The policy, introduced in 1978, was originally motivated by the country’s economic weakness, with the intention of dividing up the then meager economic pie less by having fewer people to parcel it out to.

Chinese authorities have justified the one-child policy, estimating that it prevented the birth of about 400 million people and ultimately contributed to the country’s economic growth as it eased the strains and demands of a bigger population.

While China is in a much stronger position economically today, how it handles the population issue will determine if it will keep its economic engine running or risk having too many people who might be unable to find jobs.

With its low-birth rate for decades, China is finding itself already running short on labor as its economy powers ahead and companies continue to invest and build more factories.

Infrastructure-wise, China shows it has not caught up with its economic developments and needs, as seen in its large-scale transportation problems earlier this month. As millions tried to head home for the Chinese new year holidays, they found themselves stranded as roads, rails and air links broke down, due to the perfect storm of unusually cold weather and increased demand for transportation. If a few hundred million more people were added to the equation, would China have the capacity to handle them?

So while there is no question that China needs to deal with this pressing issue sooner rather than later, it has to balance the tough demands of introducing a gradual change to its one-child policy that would boost the birth rate modestly, but will not jeopardize future growth or make life worse for those already in existence.