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Beijingfuturesdreams, 2008

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

China Trend Analysis III: Societal Trends in Demographics

To speak about China as a single society is difficult to do. Numbers, no matter how convincing, do not tell the tales that live here, the people do, and by and large the stories are truer than not. As the writing of 1.3 billion stories would probably take a workforce of 2.6 billion, it will likely be the case that these stories will not gain widespread circulation, and the living journey of China’s societal development will remain in the chatter at restaurants, shopping malls, and IM boards.

Therefore we will employ statistics, as they give strength to the notion of possibility, rise to urban legends, and fodder for our coming analyses. With this many people, numerous interwoven communities create the landscape of society we call China. By the numbers, we will strive to catch a glimpse of China’s New Society.

Part I: Urbanization

In early 2008, the official number of people living in China’s massive metropolitan centers eclipsed the rural population. Few analysts believe that this will reverse for many years to come, and not without a major impetus for systematic change. The Mckinsey & Company released an in-depth review of China’s urbanization trends as extrapolated through the year 2030. This report asserts that the urban population of China will eclipse 1 billion in this time frame, accounting for two thirds of China’s total estimated population at the time. Much of this influx will be migrant workers, wandering in from the country side in search of better employment and “the good life.”

Interesting information on Urbanization can be found at the International Political Economy Zone, and at UN-HABITAT – a joint research project between Habitat for Humanity and the United Nations. UN-HABITAT studies various human settlement and migration patterns, with forward looking projections for areas around the globe.

The increasing urbanization in China presents pressures on other social factors compounding possible dilemmas.

Part II: The Long-Term Effects of China’s “One Child Policy”

Beginning in 1979 the People’s Republic of China instated the national “One Child Policy” in an effort to control its booming population. China’s population, having grown from 500 million to over 1.3 billion people in the last 50 years, presents the nation’s greatest strength and possible weakness.

The “One Child Policy” has had a debated effect in the population curbing, as stiff fines and repealed social welfare programs are in place as punishment. Many of China’s poorest populations have adhered to the policy – either forgoing multiple children, putting children up for adoption, or resorting to more grim options. However, China’s wealthy populations, to whom monetary punishment is not an insurmountable obstacle, have not adhered to the policy. Additionally, numerous loopholes exist within the policy allowing Chinese residents with special minority status or living abroad to circumvent the “one child” restriction.

The “One Child Policy” has also been linked to other social trends occurring in the PRC. Firstly, the proportion of China’s growing elderly population in regards to its shrinking working age population. Secondly, newer generations of Chinese, many of whom are supported fully by parents and often two sets of grandparents until well after college, stand accused of having low work ethic, and little motivation in nation building. Thirdly, the growing disproportion of China’s male and female populations. Though other effects surely exist, and are potentially as important to China’s future, these three issues will be of main import in discussing the Images of the Future at the Beijing Games.

The first issue is bolstered by the following information: China’s aging and elderly population is currently growing at well over 5 million people per year, and has a total number of approximately 160 million across the nation. A majority of the elderly population (approximately 85+ million people) live in rural areas and are far from the reach of the central government’s social welfare programs. The rate of aging in the population is currently at a peak that is expected to last approximately through 2051. Compounding this problem is the low birth rate in much of the nation. With an annual average of only 13 births per 1000 people, the current population replacement rate is negative. This essentially means that as China’s population continues to get older, there will be a decreasing number of people available to the work force to support growing needs in medical care, and other social welfare programs.

The Second Issue is a highly debated topic that may come to epitomize the idea of generation gap in the years to come. In the generations born since 1979, there has been an increasing number of single children supported by 6 working adults...sometimes more. Many are questioning what the effects of such a support system are in terms of the expectations of these generations. Some believe that such a system has been beneficial to the maturing generations post-1979, allowing educational opportunities free of financial stress, for millions of Chinese. Others expose a darker side of such a system, fearing excessive doting, and spoiling have caused a schism in the societal concept of work value. While older generations were content to earn livable wages with minimal accumulation of material wealth, newer generations may exude an insatiable hunger for material goods, and a standard of living that far exceeds the expectations of the former. This results in a clash of priorities for the younger members of the workforce, and the increasing elderly population noted above. These generational conflicts have yet to play themselves out in full, however, some analysts claim that hard times are ahead for one or both of the generations.

The Third Issue to keep in mind is a growing gap between the numbers of male and female members of the population. Some analysts say that by the year 2020, there will be approximately 1 female capable of child bearing for every 16 males. Due to the standing cultural value placed on male heirs, a disproportionate number of female fetuses have been aborted because of the “One Child Policy.” This results in both an increased “value” of women within society, and an excess of eligible bachelors with the desire for a family. Add to this a trend that is currently being tracked by many social analysts, the rising number of double-income-no-kid couples, and further change is likely to develop in China’s rapidly changing social fabric.

Further articles related to these numbers and trends can be found here:

People’s Daily Online : China’s Elderly population reaches 143 million (2006)
RIETI : China’s Challenge: Employment and Unemployment
China Daily: China faces elderly dilemma (2004)
, and elsewhere online.

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