Despatch from Beijing | International

The challenge to arrest the greying of China

A one-year-old child in Beijing in November 2013.

A one-year-old child in Beijing in November 2013.   | Photo Credit: CHINA DAILY

China’s attempt to reverse its population decline, which rode more on hope rather than realism, has been rudely jolted. Independent demographers are concluding that instead of signs of a modest increase, Chinese population, actually declined last year. Yi Fuxian, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, U.S., has concluded in a study that 2018 marked a “historic turning point for the Chinese population”.

Mr. Yi’s conclusions, based on an extensive churning of the number of births and deaths recorded in towns and villages across the country, reveal that the Chinese population actually dropped by 1.27 million last year. The inference of a net decline was drawn after it was factored in that in 2018, 11.58 million people had died in China. Mr. Yi’s findings have so far not been corroborated by authorities in Beijing. But there are signals that his conclusions are likely on target.

Agency reports say that data revealed by the local authorities in Qingdao, the capital of the Shandong province, showed that there were only 81,000 births between January and November last year — a decrease of 21% over the previous year. Several factors may account for why a baby boom in China has proved elusive, despite the 2016 decision by Beijing allowing couples to have two children. High living costs, long working hours and hefty child-care expenses have apparently dissuaded couples from having more children.

Demographic distortions

Besides, many employers have been ruthless in handing over severe disincentives to women who may have been considering an expansion of their family., a job recruitment site, found that 33% of women suffered a pay cut after giving birth. Around 36% were demoted.

High living costs, long working hours and hefty child-care expenses have apparently dissuaded couples from having more children despite the onset of a two-child policy in 2016

The greying of China is capping pre-existing demographic distortions. In 1949, the Chinese government began a massive “barefoot doctors” programme — a bold outreach project to provide rudimentary health care to the country’s rural heartland. As people began to live longer, there was a significant increase in population, triggering concerns that China would run out of grain to feed so many mouths. The resulting family planning programme peaked in 1979, when the one-child policy was announced. But during this single-child phase, tradition seeped in quietly to ravage the male-female sex ratio. With the option of having only one child, couples favouring boys over girls engaged in mass abortion of female foetuses. As a result, in some provinces, the male-female ratio stood at 120-to-100.

This imbalance had other consequences. Women of marriageable age began to demand a degree of affluence from their prospective grooms. Many single men, in turn, began to be called “bare branches” as they were unable to contribute to the flourishing of their family tree. The skewing of the sex ratio also had a criminal fall-out. Human traffickers got into the business of “selling” wives to Chinese men through cross-border rackets. Last year, a scandal broke out when Chinese authorities arrested 60 traffickers and rescued 17 Vietnamese women.

Mr. Yi said authorities will have to quickly think out of the box to arrest the greying of China. Policymakers must think of maternity incentives along with tax breaks for couples who expand their families, he said. Without a demographic dividend, China may be unable to bridge the power divide with the U.S., which has better demographics. “China’s economic vitality will continue to decline, which will bring about a disastrous impact on the global economy,” Mr. Yi warned.

Atul Aneja works for The Hindu and is based in Beijing

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 12:40:03 AM |

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