China’s distorted demography

Dec 06 2013, 03:26 IST
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SummaryAll eyes are now on whether the country’s shift from ‘one child’ to ‘hum do hamare do’ will help in improving the gender ratio

At China’s Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress held in November, President Xi Jinping announced the long-awaited reversal of China’s coercive one-child policy—this move could add between 5 million and 10 million babies a year (or 25-50 million in five years). Is the shift to ‘hum do, hamare do’ a case of better late than never?

Thirty years ago Judith Banister, the author of the influential China’s Changing Population wrote, “Chinese government is not so wise that it can be depended upon to make all the right economic and demographic choices…” Perhaps there is an element of truth in this. While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has hitched its survival and legitimacy to economic growth, its demographic choices have been less than laudatory. Believing that “fewer people would lead to faster wealth”, China’s stringent “one-child” policy (not applicable with respect to ethnic minorities—Uyghurs, Mongols, Tibetans etc—and in certain poverty stricken rural areas) prevented 400 million births or so claimed by the CCP between 1979 and 2011. But this came at great social costs—including pushing limits of human experimentation. As Banister noted, “human trials came before animal trials” and “informed consent appears largely unknown”.

China’s economic transition has changed the societal landscape so dramatically that fertility has been declining, halving from 5.8 to 2.7 between 1970 and 1979. Today, the average number of children a couple produces has declined to 1.5 and in cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin has fallen below 1.00, below the replacement level of 2.1—coaxed by ready availability of birth-control techniques and pinched by stress, rising costs of living, housing, increasing costs of primary school education and medical costs.

China’s social cheer is turning trickle—the feted ‘little emperors’ herald a society that is increasingly atomistic and individualistic. Cases of parental neglect that were unheard of in a society that values filial piety are, sadly, quite commonplace. For example, the recent case of a 94-year-old woman suing her children for neglect made headlines.

On the other hand, many young Chinese moan about being the ‘new sandwiched class’—the 4:2:1 or the six-pocket syndrome playing backwards (four grandparents, two parents and one child configuration). The ‘little emperor’ now stands sandwiched between ageing parents and the demands of the nuclear family—his own young child. Today China is witnessing the rising phenomenon of ‘sheng nu’ and ‘sheng nan’, the so-called ‘leftover women’ and ‘leftover men’ unable to marry as they are unable to find

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