China's one-child policy and the demographic headache it left behind

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As China enters unexplored demographic territory, some entrenched cultural ideas will surely have to go.

Despite its crowded streets, cramped housing, and depleted environment, the world’s most populous nation wants more people. As China quickly ages, it faces a calamitous shortage of workers to support the older generation.

Like China, India is home to over 1.3 billion people, but it has a lower median age, higher fertility rate, and is entering a period described as a "demographic dividend." Mei Fong, the author of One Child, a history of the policy that led to China’s rapid ageing, nonetheless sees historical parallels between China and India, where we met at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

"India has some similar issues to China," she said. "There’s a lot of sympathy to the idea of controlling overwhelming population growth, but at the same time India also knows that some of these repercussions are being felt."

"I think it’s very interesting to see the parallel road that could have been taken, because India also had a period of forced sterilization under Indira Gandhi. There was a time when India and China were on the same path, population wise. They actually both got the first ever gold medals from the UN for population control because of the forced sterilization and the one-child policy. I think India looks at China with half envy, half gladness. Phew, thank god we didn’t go there, and then, what if we had? Would we be have double-digit GDP growth and be the world’s second largest economy?"

It’s not rocket science
In her book, Fong describes how the one-child policy was conceived by rocket scientists, not sociologists or economists, as a means to quickly raise China’s GDP per capita by decreasing the number of people sharing in the country’s economic gains. Simple mathematics, but the consequences have been far more complicated.

Implemented in 1979, the policy—strictly enforced through fines, forced abortions and sterilization—throttled the number of children born in China and helped create a gender imbalance of 33.59 million more men than women.

Now, as more people born before the policy reach retirement age, there are fewer working age Chinese to support them. Currently China has three working-age people per retiree, a number projected to plummet to 1.3 workers by 2050.

The shortfall in China’s pension funds is forecast to reach 40 percent of GDP by 2033.

Unable to find a publisher willing to put out her book in Chinese due to the climate of censorship, Fong commissioned a translation herself and made it available online for free. Suddenly, as the ageing population issue has gained prominence, Fong says government officials and agencies are becoming more receptive to her work.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

The two-child policy
In response to the ageing population predicament, China last year further relaxed the one-child policy. In addition to rural families, ethnic minorities and couples composed of two only children, all married couples are now allowed to have two children.

"A shift to a two-child policy gives people more choice, which is always a good thing," Fong said, "but it’s still a very rigid interpretation of what a family should be. A male, a female and one or two kids. There’s no room there for a single mom, LGBT couples, etcetera. The rules don’t facilitate that."

Fong is also sceptical about the rule change’s ability to slow China’s rapidly ageing population.

"More than 50 percent of China is urbanized, and urban societies have smaller families. Throw on top of that 30-plus years of non-stop propaganda advocating a one-child family ideal, and some of that has certainly stuck. You cannot expect people to turn on a dime and start celebrating the joys of having a second child."

Even if China could overcome entrenched cultural norms and economic pressures leading to small families, Fong said, "You’re still going to see the gender imbalance and the elder care issue for the next 15 to 20 years minimum, right?"

Not an immigration nation
There are some things China can do in the short term. It has downsized its military by a whopping 300,000 troops, a move likely motivated by the cost of maintaining the largest standing army in the world during a labor shortage. Paying the pensions of soldiers is the military’s second largest cost after wages.

It also signaled an intention to open its borders to more immigration, which has helped buoy population growth in countries like the US and New Zealand. But Fong points out that China has "never really encouraged immigration." From 2004, when China’s permanent residency policy was introduced, to 2013, only 7,356 permanent residency permits were issued. In the United States, by comparison, more than 1 million were issued in 2014 alone.

Thinking like a rocket scientist, you could always rebalance the ratios of young and old by killing off older people with cheap cigarettes and liquor—"it’s a real science fiction dystopian idea," Fong said—or try to deport them. But, she retorted, "who’s going to take them?"

Realistically, China now has to find ways for the existing working population to take care of the older generation, and for older people to look after themselves.

Filial piety as social propriety
China’s tradition of filial piety exhorts people to look after their parents in their old age. That’s complicated, however, by the vast numbers of working age Chinese who have moved out or migrated away from home. By 2011, nearly half of the 185 million people aged 60 plus were living away from their children.

In an attempt to bolster filial piety against this distance, China has allowed parents to sue their children for attention since 2013. According to The New York Times, "On the same day the new law went into effect, a court in the eastern city of Wuxi ruled that a young couple had to visit the wife’s 77-year-old mother—who had sued her daughter and son-in-law for neglect—at least once every two months to tend to her ‘spiritual needs,’ as well as pay her compensation."

Outside the courthouse, Chinese agencies have also tried to establish new social norms. In 2012, the China National Committee on Ageing collaborated with the Women’s Federation to publish ‘The New 24 Paragons of Filial Piety,’ an update of folk tales written by Guo Jujing. The original paragons, written during the Yuan dynasty, include the story of a son sitting up shirtless to attract mosquitos away from his sleeping mother and a woman who breastfed her toothless mother in law.

The updated parables include teaching parents how to use the Internet, ensuring they have enough "pocket money," helping them access government services, listening to their stories about the old days and taking them to see old movies.

Out of retirement
The underlying message behind these lawsuits and parables is that children, not the state, are responsible for their parents’ well-being. But with many workers struggling to buy their own homes, pay for their children’s educations and save for their own retirement, China is also asking older people to fend for themselves.

The retirement age in China is currently 60 for men, 55 for women in the public service sector and 50 for others. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security plans to raise the retirement age by a few months each year starting this year, the first revision of China’s retirement policy since the 1950s.

Businesses will need to adjust hiring and training policies in response to China’s demographic shift, for instance by offering more flexible working conditions to accommodate older workers.

Local government has begun backing a national Innovation for the Elderly competition, and in September last year, Airbnb announced a partnership with Beijing’s Huashou Community Elderly Services Centre, promising to give "education and training to seniors and introduce them to information about how the sharing economy can help them improve their quality of life and help them connect with travelers."

Another proposal to help older people take care of themselves is reverse mortgages, wherein older people gradually sell equity in their homes to effectively pay themselves a pension. A reverse mortgage pilot program exists here, but uptake has been low. The idea goes against entrenched cultural ideas of handing property down to the next generation.

As China enters unexplored demographic territory, some entrenched cultural ideas will surely have to go. But according to Fong, future policy changes will also need to get popular buy in.

Unlike the period shortly after Mao, when the one-child policy was enacted, she said, "Now people have things to lose. They have money to walk. And we’re seeing that in terms of people taking money out of China as much as they can, having second homes elsewhere, having an exit strategy. China cannot afford to do the things it did in the past because they will lose a major chunk of the middle-class population, which is your wealth and talent."

—Sam Gaskin is cultural content editor at Flamingo Shanghai.