Asia's startling turns on population thinking

Every time there’s some news on China’s population policy my mind goes to Zhang Yao, the plucky Chinese entrepreneur who founded the Silicon Valley firm RoboTerra, an educational robotics company targeting eight- to 18-year-olds.

Born in 1984, four years after China announced its one-child policy, Ms Zhang, who hails from Linfen, Shanxi, is in some ways a poster child for China’s era of enterprise. RoboTerra was the second business she’d started, having earlier set up Minds Abroad, an educational venture serving American and European college and graduate students and professionals through high-impact study-abroad programmes in China, India and other Asian countries.

In his own way, Ms Zhang’s father, who was with the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, appears to have been a risk-taker too. Despite China’s one-child policy, he and his wife had four children – two more girls and a boy.

Granted, Shanxi was perhaps not as strict as other provinces in enforcing the one-child policy. Even so, the other children were prudently hidden away with grandparents and brought back into the family through the adoption route when they came of school age.

Four years ago, when I met Ms Zhang as a fellow speaker at a conference in Dalian, one of her sisters was in New York, finishing a master’s in mathematics, and the other was a veterinarian in Shanxi’s largest animal hospital. The youngest sibling, a male, is a surgeon and cardiologist.

Where China’s energy, drive and resourcefulness would have taken it, had those curbs on families not been adopted, is hard to tell. Perhaps they were necessary at the time; there were simply too many mouths to feed, too many bodies to house and educate, for the resources available at the time.

It speaks to how much the regnant thinking on demography has changed in Asia and elsewhere that when Beijing announced, after a Politburo meeting on Monday, that couples were now permitted up to three children, the news made headlines globally.

For some time now, China’s demographic trends have been in the spotlight. Last month, when it published its once-in-a-decade census indicating its population had its slowest decade of growth, there was more concern expressed around the world than celebration. Tellingly, 12 million babies were born last year, down from the 18 million newborns in 2016, when the end of the two-child policy came into effect, although some of it could be attributed to uncertainties surrounding the pandemic.

Another warning bell: China’s median age of 38.4 has already passed that of the United States, at 38.1, suggesting its society is ageing quicker.

Population growth as social malady

In a way the latest policy turn reverses the thinking that prevailed in the 1960s and 1970s that the big populations of China, India and Indonesia were a bane and certainly no boon. Population pressure, it was reckoned, was a social malady that could lead to famine, poverty and social unrest – even breed communism.

One of the early success stories in curbing population growth was Indonesia’s, which has had a family planning programme since the late 1960s. In 1983, when I travelled there to study its family planning efforts at the invitation of the Manila-based Press Foundation of Asia, the country was well on its way to more than halving its fertility rate, from 5.6 in 1976 to 2.6 children per woman by 2002.

In Suharto’s Indonesia, the efforts in each province tended to be led by the wives of the provincial governors who, more often than not, were retired military brass. It helped Indonesia that Muslim leaders cooperated in the effort to spread contraception.

All this helped the sprawling archipelagic nation clock healthy economic growth for an extended period, until the Asian financial crisis set things back and toppled Mr Suharto.

The devolution of power to the provinces and district levels since the subsequent flowering of democracy in Indonesia has not always worked well for policies at the ground level and there have been some stalling of the decline of the fertility rate, which currently stands at 2.3 – well above replacement level. Nevertheless, average population growth rate between 2010 and 2020 was 1.25 per cent per year, slowing from 1.49 per cent in the 2000-2010 period.

However, during the 1950s and 1960s, the crucible of population control experiments was India. Unlike these days, when its numbers are viewed more in terms of a market to be exploited as a consumer of goods and services, the country’s swelling numbers were long seen to be a headache for the world and it held centre stage in the “over-population” discourse.

Winston Churchill’s chillingly callous disregard for the plight of millions of Indians starving to death during the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 was partly because he, who fathered no less than five children himself, thought Indians “breed like rabbits”.

Much of the early work in birth control tended to be around contraception and sometimes it descended into a bit of a farce.

In one classic instance, a major global foundation conducted a field study in northern India to propagate the rhythm method of contraception, handing out bead necklaces to illiterate rural women with instructions to move a bead for each day in the menstrual cycle. The women were advised to have sex only when the green beads were in the zone.

A year later, when the study team returned to check results they were startled to find an uptick in births. Investigation revealed that the rustic women merely pulled the beads to green before sex, assuming it was all they needed to do. It was clear that women’s literacy and awareness had a central role to play if the programme were to be successful.

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The myth of population control

Thanks to insights like these, and the path-breaking work of Ugandan anthropologist Mahmood Mamdani who wrote The Myth Of Population Control, it began to be accepted that over-population was not the cause of poverty but the result of it.

Professor Mamdani argued that people needed large families both for labour and physical security, that children were in fact an economic necessity aside from being a support system in old age. That made the decision to have more kids a rational choice in the context it is made. Development began to be regarded as the best contraceptive.

Even so, then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s younger son, Sanjay, using the cover of the national emergency his mother had imposed between 1975 and 1977, pursued an aggressive and unpopular birth control policy that included forced sterilisations.

This would prove politically costly for his mother, who had to sit in the Opposition after losing the 1977 election. Ironically, Mr B. Shankaranand, the man she picked to be her health and family welfare minister when she returned to power in 1980, was a father of eight children.

Today, things are vastly different. Improvements in healthcare and nutrition that have helped extend life, a growing emphasis on personal freedoms and choice and women finding purpose in careers have all affected demographic trends. The rise of the gig economy and its attendant insecurities also no doubt play a role in dropping fertility rates.

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Already in India, once the population migraine of the world, statistics released last December suggest that the total fertility rate (TFR) has stabilised across a majority of its states. In 19 of the 22 surveyed states, TFRs were found to be “below replacement” – a woman bore less than two children on average through her reproductive life.

Even so, India’s population – currently 17.7 per cent of the world total occupying a space of 2.4 per cent of the planet’s land area – is projected to reach 1.5 billion by 2030 and hit a crushing 1.66 billion in 2050.

Root of China’s problem

In China’s context, the news of an abrupt slowdown in population growth has set off a global frisson because the world is watching to see if it gets old before it gets rich, and what implications this has for its economy and global influence.

Monday’s announcement, which follows four consecutive years of declining births, actually transmits a sense of worry in the leadership on multiple fronts. The announcement said the new rule would “help improve our country’s population structure and help implement a national strategy to actively respond to the ageing population”.

In 2013, as China’s dependency ratio – a measure used to assess the pressure on the productive population – tilted, the government allowed parents who were from one-child families to have two children themselves. From 2016, the limit was raised to two children for everyone.

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Yet, the fertility rate remained stuck at 1.3. Today, the number of children allowed has been raised to three but it is not clear at all if the rule change by itself will make a difference.

Many Chinese perceive the cost of child-rearing to be just too high. As one netizen, quoted in a Reuters report, posted online: “The reason I haven’t bought three Rolls-Royces is not because the government wouldn’t let me.”

Beijing will need to work harder to make Chinese couples bring more children into the world. It may only have so much time. Already, many young people in China no longer have close blood relatives of matching age, just older folk to tend to.

In 2015, speaking to university students in Hainan, I asked who they would turn to for support should they have a bad argument with their parents, or face some other crisis. Almost everyone cited friends or classmates, not a sibling or relative.

If the Chinese family withers what prospects for the next generation of Zhang Yaos?

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