Photograph courtesy of Helene Minot
China today is the world’s most populous country, with a population of 1.3 billion that, although with a median age of 37 years, is rapidly aging, reaching doing in a mere ten years what took other countries half a century. Retirees over 65 numbered 100 million in 2005; there will be 330 million of them by 2050. Combined with a continuing low birth rate, this means that by then 44 percent of the population will not be working, placing a great burden of financial and social support on remaining workers and the state.
China was well on the way to lower birth rates and the two-child family in the 1950s, before Mao Zedong decreed that the country’s true wealth lay in its people and ordered everyone to multiply as much as possible. This trend contributed to the overarching poverty encompassing the country and would have slowed quite naturally once the edict was rescinded and economic progress set in.
However, the Party, never content to leave well enough alone, in blatant opposition to the good old Daoist wisdom of nonaction, in 1980 instituted the one child policy, imposing heavy fines on anyone daring to have a second or even third child. Local governments having to fulfill quotas of child birth took to harassing anyone resisting, from trashing their homes through taking their valuables to forcing women into (even late-term) abortions and involuntary sterilization.
Although rescinded now in favor a two-child model, the price has been high, especially since most of the population, still living in the countryside and following traditional forms of ancestor worship—however outlawed—saw a male heir as absolutely essential and either killed or abandoned females. Many Western families came to adopt a Chinese baby girl, often from legitimate orphanages but on occasion also the product of human trafficking. Selling a girl abroad, after all, made it possible to pay the fine for the next try for a boy.
Population-wise, the policy has left China with a screwed gender ratio: while the normal rate is 103-108 males per every 100 females, in China it is as high as 118-120 in the countryside and about 110-112 in the cities. Not only creating a potential political powder keg, this has also made it difficult for men to find marriage partners, who often require not only a steady job but also home ownership and other assets before consenting to even date. These are increasingly hard to come by as the Chinese education system is failing: unending memorization no longer cuts it in the rapidly shifting economy. Even college graduates, of whom there are more than ever before, often cannot find jobs. Having grown up in times of rising prosperity, they tend to have a sense of entitlement, wanting a cushy position with little effort and lots of money. Employers, on the other hand, are looking for people with real skills and creative thinking.
Another major factor in the population dynamics is the household registration (hukou) system, which firmly places each family in one particular location. While it is possible to travel to other places, anything requiring official involvement has to be done in one’s hometown: health care, housing permit, driver’s license, children’s education, to name but a few. As a result, huge numbers of people have become migrant workers, living unregistered and without benefits in slums on the fringes of the big cities, making minimal wage and only seeing their families once or twice a year.
Some are well-educated but, as Liao Yiwu shows in the case of the village teacher Huang Zhiyuan, cannot make ends meet in their home town and move into the city. Unable to find legal employment, Huang was forced to do hard labor and eventually ended up driving a flatbed tricycle. Even then, he was constantly on the run from police and on occasion faced imprisonment and had his vehicle impounded. Children suffer the most. If they join their migrant parents, they have no schools to attend and grow up illiterate and unskilled, becoming part of a potentially explosive underclass that digs China deeper into the middle income trap.
The government is set to alleviate this situation and has indicated easements in the registration system. It is also intent on urbanizing 300 million more people, moving them into newly build high-rises on the outskirts of smaller cities. However, the people are not all that keen on these artificial monstrosities, especially where there are no jobs, leaving projects to turn into ghost cities—another huge expenditure with no return grown by crony capitalism.
Read: Fong, Mei. 2016. One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Shepard, Wade. 2015. Ghost Cities of China. London: Zed Books.
Schmitz, Rob. 2016. Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams along a Shanghai Road. New York: Crown Publishers, 134-40.
Liao, Yiwu. 2009. The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up. New York: Anchor, 160-72.