How Many Chinese Are Enough?

19 October 2007

How Many Chinese Are Enough?

By Gwynne Dyer

Even before the 17th congress of the Chinese Communist Party began last week in Beijing, it was clear that at least one policy was not going to change: the one-child policy. “Because China has worked hard over the last 30 years, we have 400 million fewer people,” said Zhang Weiqing, minister in charge of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, earlier this year.

In the eyes of the policy’s supporters, that justifies the infringements on people’s freedoms that are involved. True, a few women (or a few million women) were dragged off to have forced abortions in the bad old days, but now it’s much more civilised. Besides, the end justifies the means, doesn’t it?

Not having 1.7 billion people now (and not having over two billion in twenty years’ time) is clearly a desirable outcome for China. Even with decades of high-speed economic growth, there is a limit to how many people China can feed and clothe and house. But did the regime really have to impose such a draconian birth-control policy in order to stay within that limit?

The doubters point out that the Chinese government’s “soft” birth-control policy in the 1970s — encouraging later marriage, fewer births and longer birth intervals — brought the total fertility rate (i.e. lifetime babies per woman) down from 5.7 in 1970 to 2.9 by 1979. That is one of the fastest drops in the birth-rate seen anywhere at any time — and it happened BEFORE the “hard” one-child policy was introduced in 1980.

Critics also point to the Indian experience, where an early experiment with enforced birth-control measures in the 1970s created such a backlash that nobody has dared to suggest it since — and yet, they argue, India’s birth-rate has also plummeted over the subsequent generation. From a total fertility rate of 6.3 in 1960, it has fallen to only 2.8 this year. The famous “demographic transition” from high birth-rate, high death-rate societies to longer-lived communities with lower birth rates still works its magic eventually. But it does take its time.

Compulsion does make a difference. India and China both started out in the 1960s with very similar fertility rates, and at that time China’s population (648 million) was much bigger than India’s (433 million). But by 1980 China’s fertility rate was already down (without compulsion) to the rate that prevails in India today. With compulsion, it has fallen even further, to little more than half the current Indian fertility rate. So China’s population will level off at around 1.4 billion by 2020, while India’s will go on growing to at least 1.7 billion.

How much difference does that make in practice? A lot. If China had taken India’s approach, its population would probably reach 2 billion before it stopped growing. For every two Chinese in the country we know, there would be three instead. That could easily be the margin between success and disaster.

China’s economic miracle (ten percent growth for the past two decades) skates permanently along the edge of environmental calamity. Just breathing the air in Beijing is the equivalent of smoking twenty cigarettes every day. The country has lost almost 7 percent of its farmland to development in the past decade. Dozens of cities are already experiencing severe water shortages. It’s bad enough with the present population of 1.3 billion. What would it have been like without the one-child policy?

In large parts of the world, it is not politically acceptable to suggest that the sheer number of people can be a problem. Population control is startlingly absent, for example, from discussions about how to minimise climate change. It’s partly out of concern for the religious sensibilities of some people, and partly because of the human rights issues that it raises.

In addition to the human rights abuses implicit in the one-child policy, there are grave demographic implications. One is the shrinking number of people in the working-age population who have to provide for a relatively large aged and retired population. Another, specific to societies where sons are seen as far more desirable than daughters, is a wave of selective abortions and female infanticide.

This is hardly unknown in India either, but in China, because of the one-child policy, it has taken on the dimensions of a plague. Girls are in such short supply that it is estimated that by 2010 there will be 37 million young Chinese men with no prospect of ever finding a wife.

There have been relaxations in the one-child policy over the years — ethnic minorities are largely exempt from the rules, and rural families whose first child is female are allowed a second try — but almost two-thirds of Chinese families really do have only one child. And the fact that the government is determined to retain the policy suggests that it intends to bring the population down in the longer run, whatever the collateral social damage.

Most ecologists would say that China is well beyond its long-term “carrying capacity” even with its present population. Maybe the government is actually listening to them. Maybe it also knows that climate change will not be kind to China. There are things worse than a one-child policy. Famine, social disintegration and civil war, for example.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“In addition…wife”)