18 November 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
The big news of the week is that China’s one-child policy is being relaxed. After 34 years when most Chinese families were officially limited to only one child, most couples will now be allowed to have two children. The reality, however, is that it will make very little difference.
It will make little difference because only about one-third of Chinese couples were still living under those restrictions anyway. The one-child limit never applied to ethnic minorities, and in the past fifteen years it has rarely applied to people living in rural areas either: couples whose first child was a girl are almost always allowed to have a second child (in the hope that it will be a boy).
Controls were stricter in the cities, but if both prospective parents were only children themselves they were exempt from the limit. And people with enough money can just ignore the rules: the penalty for having a second child is just a stiff fine up front and the extra cost of raising a child who is not entitled to free education. (The fines are reported to have raised $2.12 billion for the state coffers last year alone.)
The net result of all this is that the China’s current fertility rate (the average number of children a woman will bear in a lifetime) is not 1.0, as it would be if there were a really strict one-child policy. According to United Nations statistics, it is 1.55, about the same as Canada. Which suggests that most Chinese who really wanted a second child got one.
The new rules that have just been announced by the Third Plenum of the Communist Party say that urban people can now have a legal second child if just one of the would-be parents was an only child. This is not going to unleash a wave of extra babies; it will raise the fertility rate, at most, to 1.6. (“Replacement” level is 2.1.) Indeed, it’s questionable whether the one-child policy really held down China’s birth rate at all.
There are demographers who argue that the one-child policy hasn’t really made much difference. China was already urbanising fast when the policy was imposed in 1979, and the more urban a country is, the lower the birth rate. From about 1970 there was also a very aggressive birth control policy.
The fertility rate in China had already dropped from 5.8 children per woman in 1970 to only 2.7 in 1978, the year before the one-child rule was introduced. It has since fallen to 1.55, but that might well have happened anyway. For comparison, Brazil’s fertility rate has dropped from 6.0 fifty years ago to 1.7 now WITHOUT a one-child policy.
China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission claims that the one-child policy has spared the country an extra 400 million mouths to feed, but it would say that, wouldn’t it? The real number of births avoided by that policy is probably no more than 100 million in three decades. And if we accept these numbers, then three major conclusions follow.
The first is that the one-child policy is not the major culprit in China’s disastrous gender imbalance, with at least 120 boys born for every 100 girls. The social effects of this are very dangerous: by the end of this decade there will be 24 million “leftover” men who will never find a wife.
Any sane government would be terrified by the prospect of a huge army of unattached and dissatisfied young men hanging around the streets after work with nothing much to do. A regime with as little legitimacy as the Communists will be even more frightened by it. Unfortunately for them, ending the one-child policy will have little effect on this pattern.
Only state intervention as arbitrary and intrusive as the one-child policy could reverse the gender imbalance, and it is doubtful that the Communist regime is still confident enough to risk that degree of unpopularity.
The second conclusion we can draw from these statistics is that China’s population is going to drop whether the regime wants it or not. It will peak at or below 1.4 billion, possibly as soon as 2017, and then begin a long decline that will see it fall to 1.2 billion by 2050.
There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, but it exacerbates what is already the greatest threat to economic growth in China: the population’s rapidly rising average age. The big, old generations will be around for a long time, but the younger generations are getting smaller very fast. Indeed, the number of people in the 20-24 age group in China will halve in the next ten years.
This means the dependency rate is going to skyrocket. In 1975, there were 7.7 people in the workforce for every person over sixty: by 2050, the ratio will be only 1.6 employed persons for every retiree.
No country has ever had to bear such a burden before, but ending the one-child policy won’t get the birth rate back up. The only way China could increase its workforce to lessen the burden is to open up the country to mass immigration. And what are the odds on that?
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 11. (“The new…policy”; and “Only…unpopularity”)
5 November 2013
The Race to Mars
By Gwynne Dyer
The Curse of Mars also applies to Asian countries. About two-thirds of the attempted missions to Mars have failed, many of them even before leaving Earth orbit, and most of the rest when they tried to land. Japan’s only Mars mission failed in 1998, China’s first try failed when the Russian rocket carrying its Mars orbiter into space fell back to Earth in 2011 – and so India seized the opportunity to be the first Asian country to go to Mars.
Fifteen months after the decision was announced by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in an Independence Day speech from the Red Fort in Delhi, India’s half-tonne Mangalyaan vehicle blasted off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on the country’s east coast on Tuesday. It is already in Earth orbit, and within two weeks it will set course for Mars. Unless the Mars Curse gets it, of course.
There is something faintly ridiculous about India and China “racing” to be the first Asian country to reach Mars, but it’s no more ridiculous than the Russian-American space race of the 1960s. Besides, to be fair to the Indian Space Research Organisation, the launch window for making a relatively low-energy transition to a Mars orbit will close before the end of this month, and it won’t open again for more than two years.
Once Mangalyaan gets there, if it does, it will go into orbit around Mars and carry out various scientific experiments, notably a search for methane (an indicator of the presence of life) in the Martian atmosphere. At this point, various arrogant and/or sanctimonious people will point out that the American Mars rover Curiosity has already reported finding no methane on Mars, and that India is too poor to be indulging in such foolishness anyway.
The Indians will reply that NASA, the American space agency, also said that there was no evidence of water on the Moon – until the Indian lunar orbiter Chandrayaan-1 reported the presence of water molecules in the lunar soil in 2008. They might also mention that if the United States waited until there were no more poor Americans before sending people to the Moon, the first US mission might leave fifty years from now. Or maybe not even then.
The Indian space programme operates on an amazingly small budget (about $1 billion a year), but it has put dozens of satellites in orbit that provide practical benefits for earthbound Indians: remote sensing, flood management, cyclone alerts, fishery and forest management, etc. But that’s all in near space; the question is really whether long-range space exploration is a rational proposition.
Nationalism is part of the motivation behind every country’s space programme, and while it has its comical side it does at least persuade the political authorities to provide the large sums that are needed. China is planning to land a rover on the Moon next month, and is talking about a manned landing there by 2024. That will certainly speed up India’s manned space programme.
Like the old Russo-American space race, the Chinese-Indian one will accelerate the development of new technologies and techniques. It will fill some of the gap left by the loss of momentum in the older space powers, and some useful science will get done. But the biggest reason for welcoming the entry of major new players in space exploration is the one that everybody is too embarrassed to mention: the future of the human race.
Well, almost everybody. Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, the private company that aims to dominate the delivery-to-orbit service once provided by NASA, actually wants to create a human colony on Mars in his own lifetime – and he’s 41 now.
He is a serious player, whose large fortune (derived from his creation and subsequent sale of PayPal) is now devoted to manufacturing electric cars and building space transportation systems. Both projects are prospering, and he sees them as providing the financial and technological basis for pursuing his real goal: spreading human beings beyond this single planetary habitat while the launch window for that is still open.
Musk was quite frank about that in an interview with Rory Carroll in The Guardian newspaper last July.”The lessons of history suggest that civilisations move in cycles,” he said. “You can track that back quite far – the Babylonians, the Sumerians. We’re in a very upward cycle right now, and hopefully that remains the case. But it might not.
“There could be some series of events that cause that technology level to decline. Given that this is the first time in 4.5 billion years where it’s been possible for humanity to extend life beyond Earth, it seems like we’d be wise to act while the window was open and not count on the fact that it will be open a long time.”
I’ll let you in on a little secret. That is a big part of the motivation (though a rarely admitted part) for half the people who work in any of the national space programmes, including India’s. They value the science, and they may even revel in the glory from time to time, but that’s what it’s really about.
15 Jul 13
A Frog in the Pot
By Gwynne Dyer
If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, so they say, it will hop right out again. Frogs aren’t stupid. Well, okay, but they’re not THAT stupid.
However, if you put a frog in a pot of cool water, and gradually turn the heat up under it, the frog will not notice what’s happening. It will happily sit there until the water boils, and it dies.
Now, I have never carried out this experiment personally – I prefer my frogs’ legs fried – so I can’t vouch for the truth of it. It’s just a story the environmentalists like to tell. Besides, I already knew that human beings have trouble in detecting slow-moving threats. You can watch us failing to do it every day: we persistently ignore the fact that we are running into trouble at a civilisational level, even though the evidence is all around us.
The foundation of every civilisation is an adequate food supply: human beings simply cannot live at the density of population that civilisation implies without a reliable agriculture. But the supply of good agricultural land is limited, and the number of human beings is not.
You can postpone the problem for a while by increasing the yield of the available land: irrigate it, plant higher-yielding crops, fertilise the soil artificially, use pesticides and herbicides to protect the crops as they grow. But even these techniques have limits, and in many cases we have reached or exceeded them. So we are running into trouble. Why isn’t anybody taking action?
Governments everywhere are well aware of the problem: we are now 7 billion people, heading for an estimated 11 billion by the end of this century, and the food situation is already getting tight. So tight, in fact, that the average price of the major food grains has doubled in the past ten years. But everybody finds local reasons to ignore that fact.
The developing countries know that they are under the gun, because the standard predictions of global warming suggest that it is the tropics and the sub-tropics where the warming will hit food production first and hardest.
A (still unpublished) study carried out by the World Bank some years ago concluded that India (all of which is in the tropics or sub-tropics) would lose 25 percent of its food production when the average global temperature is only 2 degrees C higher. China would lose an astounding 38 percent, even though most of it is in the temperate zone. And all that is before their underground water sources are pumped dry.
Most governments in the developing countries know the facts, but the short-term political imperative to raise living standards takes precedence over the longer-term imperative to curb the warming. So headlong industrialisation wins the policy debate every time, and we’ll worry about the food supply later.
The developed world’s governments do nothing, because until recently they secretly believed that the catastrophe would mostly hit countries in the former Third World. That would unleash waves of climate refugees, plus local wars and a proliferation of failed states, but the rich countries reckoned that they would still be able to feed themselves – and their military could hold the other problems at bay.
But what is becoming clear, just in the past few years, is that the developed countries will also have trouble feeding themselves. Part of the problem is that many of them depend heavily on underground aquifers for irrigation, and the water is running out.
It’s running out even faster in China, India and the Middle East: for example, grain production has dropped by a third in Iraq and Syria in the past ten years. But it is hitting the big producers in the developed countries, too, and especially the United States.
For example, the amount of irrigated land in Texas has dropped by 37 percent since 1975. The amount in Kansas has fallen by nearly 30 percent in the past three years. And now it is becoming clear that the impact of warming will also be much greater than anticipated in the developed countries.
In these countries, the problem is extreme weather causing massive floods and prolonged droughts – like the heat wave that hit grain production in the US Midwest last summer, or the coldest spring in 50 years in England, which has cut wheat yields by a third.
Combine the steep fall in irrigation, the crop losses to wild weather, and the diversion of large amounts of cropland to grow “biofuels” instead of food, and it is not at all certain that the developed world will be able to grow enough food for its own citizens in five or ten years time. So are the leaders of these countries launching crash programmes to stop the warming, cut down on water losses and end the lunacy of biofuels?
Of course not. The smarter ones just reckon that since their countries will still be rich, they will buy up whatever food is available elsewhere and feed their own people that way. It will be other people, in other countries, who go hungry.
And the slower ones? They’re just frogs.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“You can…ready”; and “A still…dry”).
26 June 2013
The Nicaraguan Canal
By Gwynne Dyer
On 11 June, the Nicaraguan parliament voted in favour of building a $40 billion canal across the country connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Since the country is dirt poor, the money would have to come from international investors. It would be raised by a Hong Kong-based firm, HKDN Group, which in return would get the right to build and run the canal for 50 years. But nobody outside Nicaragua took the plan very seriously.
On 15 June, Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, and Wang Jing, the owner of HKDN, signed a contract that gives the Central American nation 51 percent of the company’s shares. Wang said the capital could easily be raised from Chinese companies and international banks – but since his only business experience has been in running telecommunications firm Xinwei Telecom, again nobody took much notice.
So on 25 June, Wang went public. Speaking in Beijing, he said that he had already attracted global investors. Work on the canal would start in 2014, and it would be open by 2020. “We don’t want it to become an international joke, and we don’t want it to turn into an example of Chinese investment failures,” he said, adding that returns on the project were “sure to make every investor smile broadly.”
Promoters always talk like that, and there would still not be much reason to take Wang and Ortega seriously if it were not for one fact: Chinese businessmen do not launch projects of this scale without the support of the Chinese government. The risk of embarrassment is just too high.
Wang denies that he has official support, of course: “I am a very normal Chinese citizen. I couldn’t be more normal.” But if Beijing really is behind the project, then it may actually happen. So what would be the implications of a 286-km. (178-mile) waterway connecting the Caribbean with the Pacific via Lake Nicaragua.
For Nicaragua, they would be huge. The Nicaraguan government claims that work on the Great Interoceanic Canal and associated projects – a “dry canal” freight railway, an airport and two duty-free zones – could double Nicaragua’s GDP and triple employment by 2018. In a country that still does not have a proper highway connecting its two coasts, that would change everything.
For Panama, whose existing canal has been the mainstay of the country’s economy for a century, the competition would be very serious. A $5 billion project to double the Panama Canal’s capacity by building a third chain of locks across the isthmus is nearing completion, but it will still be restricted to taking ships of 65,000 tons or less.
The rival canal in Nicaragua would be able to accommodate the new generation of ships ranging up to 250,000 tons, but there will not be enough shipping to keep both canals in business unless world trade continues to expand rapidly. In any case competition in transit rates would be fierce, and it might well come to pass that neither canal was very profitable.
Then there is the environmental question. The new route would cross Lake Nicaragua, the region’s largest fresh-water lake, bringing with it not only pollution but the risk of introducing salt-water species that could disrupt the lake’s ecology. But if it is forced to choose between economic growth and environmental purity, there is no doubt that Nicaragua’s government would choose growth.
The biggest question, however, is strategic. The United States built the Panama Canal and ran it for many years. Two-thirds of the cargo that goes through the Canal comes from or is going to US ports, and American warships still have the right to jump the queue of ships waiting to go through.
As a country with coasts on both the Atlantic and the Pacific, the United States sees control of the fastest way between the two oceans as a high strategic priority. Despite the hand-over of the existing canal to the Panamanian government in 1999, at the moment the US still has that control. It would have far less control over a Nicaraguan canal, and will doubtless do its best to derail the project.
That’s an inevitable strategic reflex, but it is not necessarily the case that a Nicaraguan canal would really lessen the US Navy’s strategic dominance in the region. Nothing is more vulnerable than a canal in wartime, and even in confrontations where force is not yet being used canals are easily blockaded. And although the Chinese navy no doubt enthusiastically backs the Nicaraguan project, it’s hard to see what real strategic advantage it would gain.
The new canal is certainly feasible from an engineering point of view. It may be viable economically, depending on cost factors that have not yet been calculated and on the rate of expansion of world trade. But its fate will probably be decided by the Chinese government’s willingness to back what is, for China, a vanity project.
And that, in turn, will depend on whether China’s economy remains strong enough to afford such an indulgence. At the moment, I wouldn’t bet on it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“On 15…notice”; and “Then…growth”)