November 24, 2005

China's Great Population Plight

China’s Great Population Plight, Part 1
By Antony Peyton

Imagine a world where men outnumber women, where the vast surplus of sexually frustrated males could threaten the very fabric of society, and where females are a rare and almost dying breed. This might sound like some far-fetched science fiction novel, but it’s a reality that is beginning to appear in present-day China.

China’s very own state-controlled news agency Xinhua has been surprisingly frank in reporting the issue of the country’s gender imbalance. The present population stands at 1.3 billion, but will reach 1.557 billion in 2043, and after that is estimated to approach a zero population growth rate.

Zhang Weiqing, Minister-in-Charge of the State Family Planning Commission, declared, “China's newborn gender ratio of girls to boys was 100:117, according to the fifth national census. The number of boys under 9 years old was 12.77 million more than that of girls.”

Zhang’s comments were not in isolation, as Li Weixiong, vice chairman of the absurdly long-winded Population, Resources and Environment Committee of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), also expressed concerns in a keynote speech at a full meeting of the CPPCC’s annual session.

“The normal newborn sex proportion is 100:104-107, and if China's disproportionate figure is allowed to continue unchecked, there would be 30 to 40 million marriage-age men who would be single all their lives by 2020. Such serious gender disproportion poses a major threat to the healthy, harmonious and sustainable growth of the nation's population and would trigger such crimes and social problems as mercenary marriage, abduction of women and prostitution.”

Clearly, both officials would not have expressed such facts and predictions without government approval, and so what we’re seeing here is an acknowledgment of the problem. Which is unusual in a society where face-saving and secrecy is the norm, but it demonstrates the concerns of the Chinese government.

Most people wouldn’t need a deluge of statistics to explain the dangers that a heavily male-dominated society could pose. If you’ve ever walked down a street in the late evening, to be greeted by a group of six or seven men, you may begin to fear aggression or just feel plain uneasy. It’s a natural reaction, even if the males in question have no ill intent whatsoever.

This is not the case in China. Not yet, anyway. If I were to be met by a small number of males, I wouldn’t sense tension and I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. They’d call out the inevitable “Hello!” and have a snigger, and I’d normally be aware that they’re looking at the “foreigner” to see what clothes I’m wearing. Little do they know that I am not a fashion icon from a London or Parisian catwalk.

But I am aware that males do outnumber the women at present. As a former English teacher, most classrooms could have done with a touch of femininity and resulting liveliness. Also, I’m not a huge fan of nightclubs, as I have never enjoyed communicating via sign language or paying extortionate prices for a beer the size of a thimble. But on my rare visits, the dark interiors were worryingly short of the fairer sex.

On a slight digression, women’s place in China is probably equivalent to the rank they held in the West back in the 1950s. However, before some of our male readers start jumping for joy and reaching for the contact details of the nearest travel agent, let me explain further.

Women are being dominated in a sense and quite simply can be very subservient. After marriage and the compulsory pregnancy (due to parental pressure), they stay at home to become the obedient housewife and mother. Bolder ones return to work, utilizing the help of their grandparents to care for their child. Chinese women have developed a demure nature and can be extremely immature, but it seems that Chinese men encourage this and almost treat their partners like “little girls” to be protected. It’s like somebody somewhere read one of those awful Jane Austen novels and assumed such behavior was to be adored and adhered to at all times.

But how did Chinese society reach such a state of affairs?

The China Daily discussed the background of the ancient practice of preferring boys to girls and asked, “Where have all the girls gone?” It concluded that it’s a combination of the old and the new. The Chinese love to quote fragments from their long history and make note that the "Book of Songs" (1000-700 B.C.) declared: "When a son is born, Let him sleep on the bed, Clothe him with fine clothes, And give him jade to play... When a daughter is born, Let her sleep on the ground, Wrap her in common wrappings, And give broken tiles to play..."

Which seems a bit harsh, but for centuries Chinese families without sons feared poverty and neglect and the male offspring represented continuity of lineage and protection in old age. Customarily, men take care of their elderly parents while women are expected to take care of their parents-in-law. It’s a tradition in a heavily traditional society that is hard to break.

More recently, in 1979, Chairman Mao brought in the infamous one-child policy as part of his strategy to fast-track economic modernization. Originally Mao had favored a huge population to provide strength in numbers, but then realized that placing a limit would ensure greater control.

Parents faced with this law and with only one choice… unsurprisingly choose a boy. This has led to such extremes as killing or abandoning female infants, as well as the mass adoptions—the reason why you see so many little Chinese girls in Western families these days.

At first glance, this lack of females is only China’s problem, but according to Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer, authors of Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia's Surplus Male Population, the situation in China (and India) could threaten future world peace.

“Because son preference has been a significant phenomenon in Asia for centuries, the Chinese actually have a term for such young men: guang gun-er or ‘bare branches’—branches of the family tree that will never bear fruit. The girls who should have grown up to be their wives were disposed of instead. In societies where the status of women is so low, the prospects for peace and democracy are diminished.”

Hudson and Den Boer paint a depressing picture—by 2020, they say, these “bare branches” will make up 12-15% of the young adult population. In light of global statistics showing that violent crime is more likely to be committed by an unmarried man, all these youngsters with pent-up aggression and no prospects are potential time bombs. The authors suggest that China might need to build a huge army to provide a “safety valve” for this aggression. Some may dismiss this as scaremongering, but I think the ladies have a point.

It is unlikely that this problem will “self-correct” as there is no incentive to stop having boys. The Chinese government is aware of this dilemma, but in its typical dithering fashion, hasn’t worked out a solution yet. Years of committee meetings, banquets and speeches will have to occur before they can even begin to find a way out of this prospective mess.

In my opinion, the only resolution would be to pay families a large bonus to encourage them to have a baby girl. In China, a land where the obtainment of wealth is an unhealthy obsession, people only understand hard cash. This is a society that pays homage to the great Yuan in the sky, and money is the cure for most things here.

That said, as if this boy/girl predicament isn’t enough, China faces double trouble. In the second part of this article, we’ll look at “gray matters”… as the country must deal with its rapidly aging population.


China’s Great Population Plight, Part 2
By Antony Peyton

In the first part of this article, I talked about China’s vast imbalance in the population’s boy-girl ratio. That being a major problem in itself, the country has to deal with another dilemma that only exacerbates the first: A rapidly aging population.

Many Westerners are worried that China may become such an economic superpower that it will just overwhelm the United States and, quite possibly, the rest of the world. Doomsayers, rest assured: Looking at China’s extreme demographic difficulties—which will only increase with time—that seems highly unlikely.

In fact, according to the United Nations, the proportion of Chinese citizens over 60 will rapidly increase, from 11% of the population in 2004 to a projected 28% by 2040. The share of 80+-year-olds will rise from now 8 million to about 50 million. The ratio of working-age to elderly people will decrease from now 5:1 to 3:1.

And you think Western Baby Boomers have a problem. Of course the aging crisis is not unique to China, but due to the huge population it is likely to get much worse here than anywhere else. Richard Jackson and Neil Howe claimed in their Graying of the Middle Kingdom, “By 2040, assuming current demographic trends continue, there will be 397 million Chinese elders, which is more than the total current population of France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom combined.”

The effects on the economy will be devastating. With a lot fewer workers to power the engine of China’s monstrous machine, the huge advances of today could come to a screeching halt tomorrow.

It will also be interesting to see if the Asian attitude to their elders changes when faced with such a surplus of people who will require extra care and increased taxes to support their twilight years. At present, a pleasing aspect within China is the automatic respect given to elderly people. Some may argue that respect is earned and not a right, but here, once the wrinkles and gray hairs set in, the young generation revere the perceived wisdom that old age generates.

As a person in my late thirties, I am not knocking on heaven’s door just yet. But I recall teaching a summer program to PhD students in their early twenties. Chinese students always ask the same questions, and once my age was revealed, I noticed a distinct change in atmosphere. Suddenly, my words and actions carried greater gravity, and truth be told, it made teaching a lot easier.

Whether attitudes will change is debatable, but it’s clear that Chinese taxpayers’ contributions and the entire social security system will have to be transformed.

Jackson and Howe point out that “Pension coverage in China is largely limited to urban workers in the state-owned sector of the economy. In 2002, the ‘basic pension system’ covered 45 percent of the urban workforce, mainly employees at state- and collectively owned enterprises. Rural workers are excluded from the basic pension system, although 11 percent participate in a small and voluntary rural pension system. All told, just 25 percent of China’s total workforce, urban and rural, have any pension provision at all.”

These difficulties are compounded further when the government-run People’s Daily informs the nation, “According to government rules, professional women working for government institutions and state-run companies should retire at the age of 55, but men should retire at 60. Female blue-collar workers may retire at the age of 50 and men at 55.”

Finishing work at such a relatively young age plainly reduces the size of the coffers, but Chinese women perceive this as discrimination. The World Health Organization puts the average life expectancy for Chinese women at 73 (70 for men); in some well-off areas like Shanghai it’s nearly 80. Therefore women still have plenty of life and working years to contribute. Zhu Dan, an impressive lady from the Chongqing Municipal Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC), recently stated that “The earlier retiring age means fewer social welfare benefits and it's unfair for women.”

In reply to such calls for change, the People’s Daily proudly announced that “High-ranking officials said government departments would give full consideration to the retirement policy.” When a Chinese person says, “I’ll think about it”, you can be guaranteed that’s all he will do.

The Chinese government may have to brace itself and remove its legendary “iron rice bowl” from the equation. This “iron rice bowl” is an expression referring to the traditional employment status of workers in state-owned enterprises, which include lifetime tenure and comprehensive benefits irrespective of the worker's job performance.

Attempting to abolish this cradle-to-grave social security could create social unrest, but at least if workers wake up and realize that their performance is related to their pay, it might actually create a society that encourages hard work, responsibility and innovation. At present, most workers are happy to do the bare minimum, knowing full well that they will receive the same wage regardless.

However, all this talk of pensions and the young supporting the elderly forgets that the Chinese are extremely adept at saving money, which might just be their ultimate salvation.

Official figures from the People’s Bank of China state that in September 2005, savings deposits at financial institutions were 28 trillion yuan (US$3.46 trillion). And that doesn’t count the bundles of cash that are kept at home.

Saving money and hoarding are endemic in Chinese society. In rural areas, they may have no pension, but they will be saving like mad in private. Even the suburbanites are doing the same. Pots, jars, boxes and other paraphernalia are all stuffed full with wads of notes.

The Chinese find it difficult to spend or give money. They’re very quick to literally snatch the money from your hand, but I’ve noticed that when people hand me my change or salary, it’s often handed over in a slow and grudging manner accompanied by a painful grimace—as though the person had just poured lemon juice on a paper cut.

Suddenly, an individual who didn’t seem to have two pennies to rub together, now has the latest and most expensive mobile phone, or even a brand-new car. Where did the sudden influx of wealth come from? Savings!

It’s like living amongst 1.3 billion Ebenezer Scrooges.

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