China's blessing - its 400m missing people

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 October, 2007, 12:00am

Even before the 17th Party Congress began last week, it was clear that at least one programme was not going to change: the one-child policy. 'Because China has worked hard over the past 30 years, we have 400 million fewer people,' Zhang Weiqing , minister in charge of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, said this year.

In the eyes of the policy's supporters, that justifies the infringements on people's freedoms that are involved. True, a few (or a few million) women were dragged off to have forced abortions in the bad old days, but now it's much more civilised. Besides, the end justifies the means, doesn't it?

Not having 1.7 billion people now - and not having over 2 billion in 20 years' time - is clearly a desirable outcome for China. Even with decades of high-speed economic growth, there is a limit to how many people the mainland can feed, clothe and house. But did the regime really have to impose such a draconian birth-control policy to stay within that limit?

The doubters point out that Beijing's 'soft' birth-control policy in the 1970s - encouraging later marriage, fewer births and longer birth intervals - brought the fertility rate down from 5.7 babies per woman in 1970 to 2.9 by 1979. That is one of the fastest birth-rate drops seen anywhere at any time - and it happened before the 'hard' one-child policy was introduced in 1980.

Critics also point to the Indian experience, where an experiment with enforced birth-control measures in the 1970s created such a backlash that no one has dared to suggest it since. And yet, they argue, India's birth rate has also plummeted over the subsequent generation. From a fertility rate of 6.3 in 1960, it has fallen to only 2.8 this year. The famous 'demographic transition' from high-birth-rate, high-death-rate societies to longer-lived communities with lower birth rates still works its magic - eventually.

Compulsion does make a difference. India and China both started out in the 1960s with very similar fertility rates and, at that time, China's population (648 million) was much bigger than India's (433 million). By 1980, China's fertility rate was already down to the rate that prevails in India today. With compulsion, it has fallen to little more than half the current Indian fertility rate. So China's population will level off at around 1.4 billion by 2020, while India's will go on growing to at least 1.7 billion.

How much difference does that make in practice? A lot. If China had taken India's approach, its population would probably reach 2 billion before it stopped growing. That could easily be the difference between success and disaster.

China's economic miracle skates permanently along the edge of environmental calamity. It's bad enough with the present population of 1.3 billion. What would it have been like without the one-child policy?

In large parts of the world, it is not politically acceptable to suggest that the sheer number of people can be a problem. Population control is startlingly absent, for example, from discussions about how to minimise climate change. It's partly out of concern for the religious sensibilities of some people, and partly because of the human rights issues that it raises.

There have been relaxations in the one-child policy over the years, but almost two-thirds of Chinese families really do have only one child. And the fact that the government is determined to retain the policy suggests that it intends to bring the population down in the longer run, whatever the collateral social damage.

Most ecologists would say that China is well beyond its long-term 'carrying capacity' even with its present population. Maybe the government is actually listening to them. Maybe it also knows that climate change will not be kind to China. There are things worse than a one-child policy. Famine, social disintegration and civil war, for example.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries