China’s Bare Branches

The Law of Unintended Consequences is universal and infallible. When China implemented the Family Planning Act, more commonly known as the one-child policy, in 1979, the gender birth rate began to skew heavily toward males. And while the government has taken steps to normalize the gender split, the current birth rate remains at 117:100 in favor of males when 103:100 to 107:100 is considered biologically normal.

The reason, of course, is that many Chinese couples would prefer to have a son due to the expectation that a son will be in a better position to provide for them in their old age. (Chinese children are required by law to support their aging parents, eliminating the need for the government to provide a system similar to America’s Social Security system.)

It is technically illegal for a medical professional to tell expecting parents the gender of a developing fetus, but it’s easy to get around the restriction and they all know. And while the selective abortion rate has declined, the gender split remains.

Alarm bells are starting to go off because by the year 2020 it is projected that China will by home to 20 million marriage-age men, called guanggun, or “bare branches”, for which there will be no brides. And that, of course, could lead to a lot of social challenges (e.g. sexual assault) that exist even in societies that are gender balanced.

China is also facing an aging population and a declining workforce. China’s working population fell by 3.7 million in 2014, the third consecutive year of decline. And the United Nations forecasts that the number of Chinese 60 and over will increase to 400 million, or a third of the population, by the early 2030s.

Responding to these projections, the Central Committee of the Communist Party released a communiqué from its plenary session this week announcing the elimination of the one-child policy. (Couples will still be limited to having only two children.)

Eliminating the one-child policy won’t solve the problem overnight. The policy has never applied to everyone and was significantly relaxed in 2013. For financial and lifestyle reasons there was no resulting baby boom.

The reality is that most Chinese couples that can afford a second child already have one for reasons I’ve blogged about before. Housing costs in the major urban areas runs about 5X the cost of comparable housing in the US and schooling and the best medical care can get expensive.

So, what to do? Well, Xie Zuoshi, a professor of economics at Zhejing University of Finance and Economics has a proposed solution. He suggests legalizing polyandry, allowing women to take more than one husband.

His comments have lit up China’s social media, mostly to the negative, but he defends his proposal on purely practical and economic grounds and notes that brothers have shared wives in the remote areas of China before.

Immigration, of course, is another option but that is unlikely given the size of the current population and the fact that Chinese culture is simply not assimilative. Foreigners are foreigners and always will be. Not for judgmental reasons. The Chinese are Chinese and proud of the fact.

On the one hand, the declining work force will force wages up and force the manufacturing sector up the value chain, helping the pivot to a modern consumer economy. On the flip side, however, 400 million elderly people is going to be a big financial burden for society as a whole, particularly as the very health conscious Chinese continue to expand their average life span.

It’s a development worth watching and the Party’s announcement came as a total surprise to everyone given that the Party had reconfirmed its overall commitment to the policy during the last round of amendments.

It may cut down on Chinese tourism to the US since that was a common way for Chinese women to have a second child, but that should be more than offset by the growth in the number of Chinese who can afford foreign travel.

In the end, Confucius was right. You can’t enforce a law that people do not voluntarily support. Shame and obligation are far more powerful than the police will ever be.

And we just can’t forget the Law of Unintended Consequences, particularly when we start sailing war ships within waters – for right or wrong – claimed by China, just to show them that we can.

President Xi has a 95% approval rating and the US is commonly thought of as an imperial bully – a rich one with great technology and clean air – but a bully nonetheless.

Let’s just hope that population demographics actually matter in the end.

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Copyright © 2015 Gary Moreau

Gary Moreau
Gary Moreau

Note:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.

You may contact the author at glassmakerinchina@gmail.com