It is China’s one child policy that is perhaps the mostly widely known of the communist party’s many political directives. It is a policy that produces an extreme reaction among foreign observers. There are libertarians and pro-lifers who view the population control strategy with moral abhorrence. Some environmentalists laud the idea as the only practical way to curb the danger of rampant population growth that would lead to massive environmental degradation and resource loss. These things are already a problem in China, thanks mainly to its aggressive economic expansionism, but would be worse without any control on the numbers of new children born.
There is a further political grievance with this policy – it is only applied selectively: Han Chinese in Tibet and other so called ‘autonomous regions’ are given license to have as many children as they want. This is leading to what the 14th Dalai Lamai has called ‘cultural genocide’ where local populations are becoming the minority in their own land.
What the mandarins of the Chinese communist party did not envision was the long term social consequences of the one child policy. It is a radical policy and it is beginning to have alarming consequences.
The first is selective progeny. As with India and other Asian countries having a son is traditionally viewed as paramount to a family’s success. A first son must take over the family business. A first son must place offerings at the shrine of his ancestors. A first son carries forward a name and a cultural and genetic inheritance in a way that a daughter is perceived not to.
What this means is that women have been having multiple abortions until they conceive a boy. Today there are 119 boys for every 100 girls in China (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=there-are-more-boys-than-girls). This is an imbalance that is going to get worse.
In terms of society it means that parents save more money than ever. They need to give their son every advantage possible such as college education and a car to attract a female partner. The bargaining position of parents with a daughter has never been stronger. They can demand large sums for their daughter’s hand. Independent Chinese women are now not shunned, but courted. It is empowering in some ways. In others, it is just a reminder of how traditional attitudes prevail – women are inferior and parents will do anything to get a grandchild. Communism was meant to free humanity of superstition and gender prejudice. The experiment, if it was ever really applied, has failed. Human nature with all its warts has prevailed.
For the economy it means a reduction of consumer growth. The Chinese have become ‘savers’ not ‘spenders’ – a grandchild is more important than a new car. Naturally, lack of rampant growth in consumer demand at home has to be made up for by looking for markets abroad. This is fine as long as the world economy is not ailing as it is now. Already we are seeing huge stock piles of raw resources piling up in China. Its massive manufacturing sector has created more supply than there is demand.
The other alarming social impact of the one child policy is a rapidly ageing society. China now has the fastest ageing population in the world. A widespread improvement in living standards accompanied by better medical facilities has increased life expectancy in China to levels approaching the developed world.
At present there are 6 workers to support 1 pensioner. The one child policy means that in 20 years time this ratio will drop to 2 workers to every pensioner (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-19647867). That is a swift and paradigm changing scenario that will impact Chinese economics, politics and society. The Chinese economic miracle has been largely driven by a young workforce ready to travel great distances and work for small remuneration. In 20 years time such a workforce will not exist. Employees will have the upper hand and will be able to demand higher wages. This will corrode any competitive advantage China had in the world market place. India and Indonesia with an abundance of young and poor citizens will be well placed to become the ‘New China’.
The Chinese Communist Party has a major re-shuffle every 10 years. Now in 2012 it is about to have another. This is one of the most pressing problems to solve for the new technocrats at the helm. Luckily, the party ditched any real pretense to ideological integrity many years ago and so nearly all options are on the table. What they cannot afford to do is to aggravate the citizenry too much. If anything too calamitous happened to China even the brainwashed army might turn on its master. That is the ‘mandate from heaven’ factor.
At present the Chinese government has avoided excessive taxation and set up only a bare bones welfare state; very much following an example long set by the USA. The idea is that the state should not burden business with excessive red tape or tax demands. The lessons of capitalism have been studied just as Western technology was studied and then copied. In countries like Thailand it is simply not possible for the government to collect large tax revenues and institute a major welfare state undertaking. In contrast the Chinese communist party has the political might and the logistical resources to collect more tax if it chose to create better facilities for pensioners.
It is going against the grain of current economic thinking but higher taxes might be inevitable in China in the next 20 years. As for solving the problem of halting a society moving further into old age there are a number of suggestions on the table. We know these because Japan has been wrestling with the problem for the last 30 years.
The Japanese pay lip service to this idea but covertly reject it as the Chinese will do. Both countries are obsessed with racial identity and cannot brook the notion of their population becoming watered down by ‘foreigners’ or ‘outsiders’. Itinerant foreign workers that are regulated and made to leave are expedient but mass immigration policies are political suicide for the Chinese and Japanese polity. So much so that the Japanese are now even suggesting they can build millions of robots to look after the old rather than have millions of foreigners come in as carers.
Encourage population growth
This is what the Japanese government is doing. They are giving lots of money out for those who have children. China already has 1.3 billion people; despite the one child policy China’s population is still a runaway train. To go back to the old ways of big families with lots of children is suicide for everyone in the country.
Japan doesn’t see this. They see it as a viable solution. Really it is just pushing the problem back a few generations: when the new baby boomers grow old the problem will be worse than before. Nobody seriously imagines China will follow this path.
Technological fix and outsourcing
The new economic ethos is to think beyond borders. Just because it is a problem in your country doesn’t mean it has to be regarded as a purely domestic problem. Just as the great potato famine of 1740 drove the Irish out of their homes so a lack of good facilities for old people will drive a lot of rich Chinese out of China. They will go to the Philippines, they will take long term villa rentals in Thong Nai Pan and other holiday destinations, they will move to Europe, and they will move to North America. Anywhere that is cheap and / or has good medical facilities. In effect, the Chinese will start to outsource their ageing population problem.
Chinese government policy has been heavily influenced by technocratic thinking over the last 20 years. They may well try some type of Japanese style crusade to bring in a technological fix to the problem. For a start shrinking numbers in the factories can be compensated for by robots. It is a front-ended investment but the RMB is strong and the country has massive reserves of cash.
The level of technology needed to solve the many problems of an ageing society in China has not been reached. Will the Chinese leadership preserve with reverse engineering or will it invest in Japanese technology? This would be a moot point if it were not for the fact that a technological fix is clearly not enough. The number of old people in the equation makes a technological solution unrealistic.
This is the real Asian solution. To please the masses the politicians claim to be tackling the problem –whether it is a democracy or an oligarchy. Really the political actions are cosmetic. They can see no solution. Better to leave the problem for the next generation of leaders.