This insightful blog post by Chinese Marxist Leo He Zhao addresses the assorted claims that China is facing a “demographic crisis” as a result of the One Child Policy that was in force from 1980 until 2015.
He Zhao starts by explaining the rationale for the One Child Policy. Generally portrayed in the West as being uniquely authoritarian and inhumane, the policy addressed a very specific and real problem. Largely as a result of economic distortions in the countryside created by the semi-feudal administration (in particular the production of cash crops rather than subsistence agriculture), and with a huge population and relatively little arable land, China was struggling to feed its population. Furthermore, the population was growing extremely fast, thanks to the innovations of the socialist revolution: ending feudalism, giving land to the farmers, and extending basic healthcare and social welfare throughout the country. People were living much longer, and the infant mortality rate dropped massively. “Overpopulation on planetary scale is a myth, but a very real and serious problem within an extremely poor and underdeveloped country. There was simply not enough food to feed 1 billion mouths.” Thus the One Child Policy was introduced to “reduce the previous unsustainable pace of population growth to manageable levels.”
The One Child Policy was ended in 2015, as population levels are stable and China is in a much stronger position to feed its people. However, various Western analysts insist that China will soon find itself in a position where it doesn’t have enough workers and, as a result, its economy will stagnate. He Zhao points out that, increasingly, China’s economic progress is not based on an enormous labour force. “Today, agriculture in the PRC is increasingly high tech, with not only traditional machines doing most of the raking and harvesting, but increasing popularity of drones planting seeds and doing other tasks. Further, the Chinese economy is rapidly transitioning from low level manufacturing (the primary developmental method of any under developed economy) to a high technology service orientation, which also reduces the necessity of large population of workers in urban areas.” As such, it is unlikely that China’s path of socialist modernisation will suffer any major problems as a result of demographic changes.
One Child Policy
First, lets briefly make very clear the historical context and material reasons for the One Child Policy, which, without exception, is always missing from Western narratives.
In the 19th Century, colonial administration switched the focus of agricultural production from rice, vegetables, and other food crops to cash crops like tobacco for export and profit. England forced, at gun point, massive amounts of opium on the country, so that addiction rate was around 20% of adults during the first decades of the 20th Century. Amidst chaos, neglect, and devastation from numerous wars, much infrastructure such as roads and waterways for transport were destroyed. General poverty and extreme under development meant very few hospitals, a severe to total lack of health care and access to medicine.
All of this contributed to average life expectancy being 35 years in China until well after 1949 liberation, a statistic which mostly consisted of infant mortality.
In an agrarian national economy where the vast majority of hundreds of millions of citizens were rural farmers, families needed bodies to work on the farms. When so many babies die, a culture developed of families having 10, 20, 30 children, in the hopes that a few of them will survive and grow up to work in the fields. (This practice was somewhat further increased by the famine of 1962, even if the effects of which has always been greatly exaggerated in Western press)
By 1970, under Communist Party organisation, average life expectancy in the PRC rose rapidly and drastically, doubling to 70 years.
But the rural population, which was the vast majority, still had this culture of having 10, 20, 30 children, which lead to a population explosion.
In 1980, when the policy was implemented, Chinese GDP was lower than average GDP of Africa; and China was poorer than even colonialism and slavery ravaged Sudan or Haiti. Over population on planetary scale is a myth, but a very real and serious problem within an extremely poor and underdeveloped country. There was simply not enough food to feed 1 billion mouths.
Exploding population became a very serious burden on national economy, and a massive dead weight which threatened to make progress impossible.
The One-Child-Policy, rewarding single child families with benefits and placing extra tax on multiple children families, was a solution to a very large scale problem ultimately caused by colonialism and war.
It was largely successful, and reduced the previous unsustainable pace of population growth to manageable levels.
But the coloniser nations, after previously having been for a very long time struck by widespread fear of an over populated China filled with too many Chinese people, have been and are still framing this policy as an example of “authoritarian suppression of basic freedom”, of “communist violation human rights”, and using it and every facet of it to demonise China and its government in every conceivable way.
There were also some families which had more than 1 child, but wanting to avoid taxes, broke the law by not reporting the extra children, leading to these children not having birth certificates and official registry, which barred them from some social institutions in some provinces. This has of course also been often used to paint a picture of oppression, as if the Communist Party simply revels in cruelty.
And in recent few years, after the One Child Policy ended in 2015 and after decades of fear mongering about Chinese overpopulation, Westerners are now all of a sudden very “concerned” that “oh, no! China is experiencing a demographic down turn as a result of that horrible policy, and… they may not have enough people to keep their economy afloat!”
If I’m allowed to speak for all Chinese people: it is heart warming to know that our European, North American, and Australian friends worry about us, our nation, and our future; but there is no need.
Population size stabilizing is a dynamic common to all developed countries, and it will not be a problem for China as it achieves that status, because gone are the days many hundreds of millions of bodies are needed to rake the soil, plant seeds, collect harvest, and increasingly, even work in the factories. Today, agriculture in the PRC is increasingly high tech, with not only traditional machines doing most of the raking and harvesting, but increasing popularity of drones planting seeds and doing other tasks. Further, the Chinese economy is rapidly transitioning from low level manufacturing (the primary developmental method any under developed economy) to a high technology service orientation, which also reduces the necessity of large population of workers in urban areas.
Further, along with accelerated evolution of AI, automation is fast replacing human workers for many types of manufacturing: today there are lights-out factories in ShenZhen operated entirely by robots and thus do not need to be lit, and restaurants which serve thousands with only a handful of human employees.
Market trajectory of recent 20 years also clearly show that manufacturing for export is slowly becoming less important, while domestic consumption is becoming more central. Chinese mixed economy with socialist organisation and planning will be less reliant on large labour forces, and is becoming more self reliant and self-sustainable.
There is also still widespread Western apprehension regarding the myth of men exponentially outnumbering women in China (a continuation of the age old racist scaremongering narrative of African and Asian men taking European and Euro-American women), as supposedly a result of the widespread Chinese practice of female infanticide.
While like everywhere else, Chinese feudalism was deeply patriarchal, and male babies were sometimes prised because men could do more physical labour, the Communist revolution has put an end to these practices which existed also in other parts of the world, and has implemented many policies to combat deeply seated sexist attitudes, starting with the correction of structural and material gender inequality.
While the only country which comes to mind when the topic arises in the West is always China, the sex ratio in the PRC is actually far from being globally the most unequal.
“World Domination Requires large Population”?
Another popular Western sentiment is: “Good luck taking over the world with a dwindling population!”, which, they are eager to point out, requires population growth by natural homogeneous birth rate.
The PRC doesn’t need population growth for empire building, because the PRC is not interested in empire building. China ceased to be an expansionist empire past the warring period which ended in 200BC, and socialist PRC has zero such ambitions.
PRC military excels in every category, except aircraft carriers. Why? Because, as Pentagon strategy papers themselves clearly and repeatedly clarify, the People’s Liberation Army is not a military force developed for power projection abroad, but is only for defence of its own territory.
From among the lowest in the world in 1980 until today, surpassing the USA by PPP and most of the most important measures to become number 1 in the world, the recent 40 years of mega-growth of the Chinese economy is the single fastest in all human history, achieved without conducting any coup d’etats in other countries, without installing any puppet regimes, without placing any sanctions or embargoes on disobedient governments, without dropping any bombs, and without firing a single bullet.
This is a continuation of Chinese history: with the most powerful maritime military force consisting of ships 20X the size of European ships, Chinese fleets sailed around the world, around Africa and Asia, and did not conquer, did not take any territory or slaves, but traded.
It must be added here that no, this is of course not due to some elemental peaceful nature of Chinese people, just like the wave of colonisation that happened less than a century later is not due to some innate European higher capacity for violence. China at the time of the 1400s had been a relatively stable, peaceful, unified, self sufficient and self satisfied continent-spanning civilisation for 3000+ years, having gotten their epic internal territorial conflicts over with a very long time ago, and which did not hunger for new territory. Whereas Europe at that time was emerging from many centuries of near continuous warfare after the fall of Rome, its people subjected to oppressive theocratic rule, many famines, and many plagues, thus comparatively accustomed to brutality which became almost a way of life, and at the same time desperate for new opportunities, prospects for a better life, and a change of scenery.
(Historical materialism does not absolve individuals or individual groups of people of crimes and accountabilities, but leads us away from the monstrous mistake of biological, ethnic, or cultural essentialism.)
Within the borders of modern China, since taking power in 1949, the Communist Party completely abandoned the traditional ethnic supremacist mind-set of thousands of years of monarchism, and reversed the Han-chauvinist policies of the Nationalist Party which ordained that anyone living within national borders should be assimilated to Han culture. The CPC has widely implemented strong anti-prejudice and anti-discrimination policies which suppresses Han-supremacy, prioritises the economic empowerment of minorities, and massively funded the protection and development of ethnic minority cultures.
— Ethnic minorities have always been exempt from the One-Child Policy, which was only applied to the ethnic majority Han people. (For example, Uyghur population has grown at a pace 12 X faster than that of Han in the past 70 years.)
— Local governments of ethnic minority regions are all headed by members of the ethnic minority group, without exception.
— Free elementary, middle and high-school-level boarding schools and special college-preparatory classes for minority children.
— Minority children can get into a university with exam scores 20 to 30 points below the minimum score for Han children.
— A separate network of universities exists only for minority students. Similar to HBCUs in the US, but better.
— No-interest loans are offered for small minority businesses.
— Businesses are officially encouraged to hire minorities.
— A comprehensive, bilingual-education program aims at helping minorities learn both their own languages as well as Mandarin. Meanwhile, scholars are creating alphabets for minority languages that had no writing systems to help ensure that these languages do not die.
— Han people living in ethnic minority regions are required to learn the minority languages. For example, Han living in Tibet are required to learn Tibetan.
In conclusion, the civilisational state known as China ceased to be an expansionist empire after 200BC, and under leadership of the Communist Party, is both resolutely against cultural and ethnic supremacy at home, and strictly adheres to a policy of non-interference and mutually beneficial trade and development abroad.
Citizens of Western countries need not worry either about Chinese internal affairs such as the size of population, nor about Chinese foreign policy abroad, and maybe should focus on the myriad of mounting problems created by their own domestic and foreign policies.