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Associated Press/Photo by Andy Wong

Bumping into reality

How did so many Chinese get so old so fast?

Issue: "After Osama," May 21, 2011

When The Wall Street Journal reported in a splashy front-page article last week that China's infamous "one-child" policy may be on the rocks, it was a reminder that the toughest governments in the world aren't as tough as they like to think.

Part of the problem in China-and with so-called population experts around the world-is that even the experts don't seem to have a clue what they really want. "More babies," said Mao Zedong half a century ago, convinced that such a populist approach, if carefully controlled, would work. "Let's out-people the rest of the nations," he seemed to argue. "With such a work force, and such a military, nobody will be able to stop us." And his people were wildly successful, growing China's population from 800 million 50 years ago to 1.3 billion more recently. That's an increase equal to twice the population of the United States during the same period.

"Oh-oh," said the Chinese government, not quite prepared for their people's exponential response. "At this rate, we won't have room or resources for so many people." So beginning in the 1980s, a stern new government edict took shape: Just one child for each couple. Cash penalties-and very often the loss of one's job-were imposed on those who transgressed. That led naturally to a wild upswing in abortions, and an attendant epidemic of psychological bewilderment and depression among young parents. Chinese officials boast of having "prevented" 400 million births!

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But for a second time, China's government finds itself overly successful. For sure, the general threat of overpopulation seems now to have abated-except that now the burden of too many babies is being eclipsed by the burden of way too many elderly. And the number of able-bodied workers to sustain China's economy (and to support those workers' aging moms and dads) is dropping every year. Among young adults, because of selective abortion over the last 30 years, there are now only 100 young women available for possible marriage to every 120 young men. It's a ratio not appreciated by the males in China. The categories of "aunt," "uncle," and "cousin" have become almost unknown to many Chinese people. Now you mention a "wife," and you're 20 percent less likely to call to mind a real-life example. By the year 2020, the Journal's Jeremy Page reports, "China could be home to as many as 24 million single young men with little prospect of marrying or having their own children." No society in human history has faced such a phenomenon.

So common sense suggests, Page says, that China's government move quickly to drop its horrendous and unpopular one-child policy. But common sense doesn't typically prevail among bureaucracies consumed with their own wisdom and power. Indeed, China's National Population and Family Planning Commission is said to employ 500,000 people on a full-time basis and another 6 million people on a part-time basis-all to spell out the details of the one-child policy and then to enforce compliance with those details. With 6.5 million people on the job, it's hard to imagine how much in fines and bribes gets collected regularly-and what a deterrent that very fact is to any kind of appropriate reform. Bureaucrats with cozy incomes don't tend to go gently into that good night.

But reality also has a way of making its own argument. Demographer Phillip Longman made the point vividly in a recent issue of Foreign Policy when he noted: "A gray tsunami is sweeping the planet-and not just in the places you expect. How did the world get so old, so fast?"

In fact, no matter what the Chinese government does at this late date, the trend is set: China's population will actually begin to shrink 10-12 years from now-just as Japan's began shrinking in the 1990s. And once they start such a downward trend, such populations will continue to shrink as far into the future as anyone can see.
Email Joel Belz

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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