Disappearing Babies

29 April 2004

Disappearing Babies

By Gwynne Dyer

The one-child policy in China is coming to an end. It has a few years left to run yet in most of the country, but Shanghai’s city government announced in mid-April that divorced people who remarry can have a child together even if they each have a child from a previous marriage. It’s just the first crack in the dam, but more will follow.

“The one-child policy was never intended to last forever,” explained sociology professor Guo Zhigang of Beijing University, predicting that Beijing would follow Shanghai’s example within three years and that other provinces would follow. The world’s largest experiment in social engineering by government fiat is going to be shut down — and seeing what is happening elsewhere, you wonder how necessary it all was.

The one-child policy has allegedly prevented 300 million births since it was enforced nationwide in 1980, which would certainly make a difference: the current population of China is 1.3 billion, and those missing births would have added an entire United States to the total. However, there are suspicions that peasants in the more remote parts of the country may have concealed the births of up to 200 million second or subsequent children — and there is no doubt at all that the social costs of the policy have been extreme.

The biggest cost is the missing girls. Female infanticide had practically vanished in China by the time the one-child policy was imposed: in 1980 there were 108 boys born for every 100 girls, a normal ratio which, allowing for higher male mortality, would produce a gender-balanced adult population. But then the girl babies started to disappear, as parents desperate for a boy to continue the family name and look after them in their old age made sure that their one permitted child wasn’t a girl.

There are now 115 boys born in China for every 100 girls, and in some provinces over 130 to 100. Many of the younger generation’s adult males will never marry and settle down, which is an alarming prospect: a country with a hundred million unattached males sloshing around in it is a country with big problems. Moreover, not enough babies are being born to support the big population bulge of people now in middle age when they reach retirement: China’s over-65s will grow from 7 percent of the population to 25 percent by 2050.

So the one-child policy is gradually going — and China’s birth-rate will probably still remain below the replacement rate. For the great unsung phenomenon of the past twenty years or so has been the collapse in birth-rates even in relatively poor countries where the government doesn’t provide family planning services. In Brazil, the fertility rate has fallen from over six children per woman to just enough to replace the present population (2.2 children per woman) in only forty years. In Iran, women have accomplished about the same feat in just twenty years.

It’s a global phenomenon: Vietnam has gone from 5.8 children per woman to 2.3 in twenty years, and Tunisia has gone from 5 to 2.3. Large parts of India already have birth-rates below replacement level (though other parts still have four children per woman). Exactly what is causing this steep fall in birth-rates is debatable, but the closest correlation is with the very steep rise in literacy in the same period: India, for example, went from 28 percent to 56 percent literacy between 1980 and 2000.

China’s birth rate is already below replacement level, and its literacy is well over 90 percent. If it dropped the one-child policy tomorrow and declared an amnesty on existing violations, the birth rate might bump up for a few years and many ‘hidden children’ would emerge, but its population growth would certainly stay below replacement level. The total population, due to peak at about 1.6 billion around 2050 before starting back down, might peak slightly higher — but not for long.

Worldwide, the worst fears of the last generation are not being realised either. The birth rate is falling rapidly in most developing countries (Sub-Saharan Africa is a partial exception, but the Aids plague is decimating populations there), and in most developed countries the birth rate has already dropped well below replacement level. Japan’s population will fall by 14 percent by 2050, Italy’s by 25 percent, Russia’s by 30 percent. Indeed, this year probably marks the turning point when more people live in countries where births are below replacement level than above it.

There is still considerable population growth left in the system, because all the young people from the high-growth days must have their children — and will then live on themselves for another forty or fifty years. But current projections of world population suggest a peak of 8.9 billion around 2050, followed by a decline that could be equally swift. It does mean adding another 2.7 billion people — two Chinas — to the human race, at least for a time, but it’s far more hopeful than even the optimistic predictions of fifteen or twenty years ago.

Does this avert the many environmental crises that are predicted to occur in the next fifty to a hundred years? In most cases no, because they have more to do with rising per capita consumption of energy and goods, and rising levels of waste, than with sheer numbers of human beings. But more people would make things that much worse, so it is still very good news.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“The biggest…2050”)