The population of China, currently estimated at 1.2 billion, is bigger than the combined populations of the US, Europe and Russia. Although demographers argue that India will overtake China within the next thirty years, currently it remains the largest in the world.
Historically too, it has had one of the largest populations in the world. In the Tang Dynasty from the seventh to ninth century AD there were ten cities in China with a population greater than one million – after the Black Death in the fourteenth century the population of England was only some 3.5 million. The introduction by the Europeans in the sixteenth century of crops such as maize and peanuts that could be grown on sandier soils, and thus more land could be put under cultivation, led to a population boom. Thus the population of China in the nineteenth century was 450 million whereas the population of Europe at this time was only 250 million.
When the communists came to power in 1949 the population was approximately 600 million. Leaders of China today believe that the optimum Chinese population is 700 million. Mao discarded birth control as a capitalist plot to hinder his country’s growth and said that the strength and potential of the country lay in its people. This rhetoric along with improved sanitation and medical facilities introduced by the communists, and years of stability after the turmoil post 1919 of the Warlord era, the Japanese Occupation of China and the Civil War, led to a baby boom and today’s population.
In the late 1970s the government began to try to deal with the population explosion through campaigns and slogans such as ‘Longer, Later, Fewer’ and billboards showing a young couple with just one child, usually a girl in an attempt to break down established Chinese prejudices. Contraception became free and there was a sustained attempt to educate the people in the use of birth control. The legal age of marriage was raised to twenty-two for women and twenty-four for men, and women were encouraged to have children later by such incentives as longer maternity leave. In the cities married couples were encouraged to sign a one child pledge by offering them an extra month’s salary each year until the child is 14 years old. If the couple has a second child then this and other privileges are rescinded. This policy did not and does not apply to the countryside and to the minorities who are allowed two children before penalties are imposed.
Birth control measures appear to be working in the cities where an extra 300 million people would have been born over the last twenty years had there been no family planning. Yet some argue that if China’s one child policy does succeed than one consequence will be a rapidly ageing population. The argument being that Mao’s baby boom policies created a population that is today young and that the baby bust of today will have the opposite effect, and thus the result will be having to support a large number of geriatrics in the future.
One worrying side effect of the one child policy is the length that couples go to have a boy. Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wu Dunn in their book ‘Dragon Awakes’ talk of how in one province, Zhejiang province, 99% of aborted foetuses were female. Adoption and orphanages are sensitive issues in China but the overwhelming amount of evidence shows that most orphans and adopted children are female. In the countryside where couples are allowed two children if the first is not a boy the girl will often be called ‘Zhaodi’ or ‘Laodi’, variations on ‘Bring a little brother’. This preference, the importance of having a son is deep-rooted within Chinese culture and history, part of the Confucian orthodoxy, and even forms a part of the language. The Chinese character for the word good is the character for woman combined with the character for son – the implication being that it is good when a woman has a son.
This desire to have a male, a son, has led to a distortion of birth figures. Every people in every country have an approximate birth-rate of ratio of 106 male births to 100 female births. However in China, because of the importance of having a son, this figure has been skewed to 118 male births to every 100 female births. If you extrapolate the world-wide average figure on top of this, this being the norm, then approximately 1.3 million baby girls go missing every year. This raises the ugly question of female infanticide, however most baby girls are simply not reported to the authorities or are left on the doors of an orphanage. Perhaps more worrying for the young men of China there will be a lack of women in the future.
By 2020 China could have between 30 and 40 million men who cannot find wives.