Decline Of The East? The Chinese Say No

China’s birthrate is higher than South Korea’s or Japan’s. Yet family life is thriving there as millions defy the one-child policy

Beijing is Brobdingnag peopled by Lilliputians. The superhuman scale of its buildings and public spaces, starting with the Great Hall of the People abutting Tiananmen Square, is calculated to overwhelm rather than uplift. Its main urban arteries are freeways that pedestrians can traverse only by bridge, with businesses displaced onto access roads. People dress to blend in, not to stand out. The surface impression reinforces every Western prejudice about conformist, colourless China. But the first impression is woefully wrong.
The real China is found in families. The most salient social fact about China is the resilience of family ties. During the past 35 years, 500 million Chinese have moved from countryside to city, the near equivalent of the whole population of Europe from the Urals to the Atlantic. To house them, China has built the equivalent of a new Europe — a new Naples, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Kiev, Lyon and so forth. Chinese families are flung across the world’s second-largest country by surface area. But during the great internal migration around the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, the Chinese undertake an estimated 3.6 billion journeys, many lasting for days, to reach an annual family reunion. In public the Chinese may be cautious and reserved, but among family they are unrestrained, even raucous. 

One of China’s great mysteries stems from the great wall between public and private life: no one knows how many Chinese there are, and estimates by competent academics differ by hundreds of millions. Families, especially those in rural areas, flouted the one-child policy introduced in 1980, lying to local party officials, who in turn lied to the central government. Despite the Communist Party’s ruthless efforts to suppress population growth, China’s families offered resistance on a scale that distorts the country’s demographic data. The most common estimate for China’s fertility rate is 1.6 births per woman, but credible estimates range from 1.3 births up to 2.2 births, higher than in any industrial country except Israel.

The upper range of fertility estimates for China may seem improbable, but they stem from comparing official birth statistics to elementary school enrolment data. A respected Chinese demographer, Liang Zhongtang, reckoned the fertility rate to be 2.3 between 1982 and 2000 and at 2.1, still just above replacement, in 2005. According to Dr Liang, “If the 2000 census count were to be adjusted using historic data on elementary school enrolments, the total population that the 2000 census should have enumerated can be estimated at 1.31 billion (assuming a 1.8 per cent undercount rate) or 1.30 billion (assuming no undercount). By calculating on the basis of the 2000 general census data, of 1.266 billion, the average overall female fertility for the years 1982-2000 was 2.3 children per woman. If calculated on the basis of a population of about 1.3 billion, the overall female fertility averaged over 2.3 children per woman.” And Bingham Kennedy of the Population Reference Bureau noted, “One 1995 conference of Chinese demographers concluded that an average of 30 percent of births were going uncounted at that time.”

For those who like to categorise East Asia under the overall rubric of “Confucian culture”, a paradox arises: why are birth rates in Japan and South Korea — where people are free to have as many children as they please — lower than China’s? With total fertility rates of just 1.4 and 1.3 children per woman respectively, Japan and South Korea are heading towards a demographic cliff. The United Nations projects that if fertility does not change, the number of women of child-bearing age in South Korea will fall from 12.5 million today to only 3.4 million at the end of the century. In Japan, the count will decline from 26 million to only 8 million. The UN projections for China seem almost as dire, but they stem from assumptions that may be entirely wrong. There has been endless discussion of China’s coming population crisis, but we simply don’t know how bad China’s demographic crisis might be, or whether it is a crisis to begin with.

It is the greatest migration in world history, and it has wrought great cultural changes; a Chinese friend mentions that he has no common language with his grandfather, who speaks only a provincial dialect that the grandson never learned. Yet the ties that bind Chinese families together appear to have survived this displacement, perhaps far better than in the other East Asian nations. World fertility, to be sure, has declined steady for the past 200 years. In traditional rural life, children were wealth as well as security. With a life expectancy at birth of 25 years, the level that prevailed from Roman times until the early 19th century, the average woman had to give birth five times simply in order to maintain a stable population. Farmers did well to bear more children as family labour. Before the era of government pensions, children provided for their parents in old age. An Englishman at the turn of the 20th century, when life expectancy had just reached 50 years, would need five children to be sure that one would be alive when he turned 65.

In 1950, 70 per cent of the world’s population were farmers, and women on average bore five children. Urbanisation, antibiotics and social security removed the old reasons to have five children, and world fertility fell from six children per woman worldwide in 1950 to 2.5 children in 2015. The poorer countries of the southern hemisphere repeated the great fertility transition that characterised the industrial world over the past two centuries. That much is explained by simple economic incentives. What is harder to explain, and far more relevant, is why in some countries the transition leads to fertility around replacement levels while in other countries fertility plunges to levels that lead to national extinction within a century. Economics does not explain this; we have to look to the spiritual condition of peoples in this transition.

The great transition we associated with urbanisation, education and industrialisation did more than change incentives: they substituted a regime of personal choice for the old certainties of traditional society. As women shed the bonds of traditional society they eschewed motherhood. As Oswald Spengler wrote in The Decline of the West, “The primary woman, the peasant woman, is mother. The whole vocation towards which she has yearned from childhood is included in that one word. But now emerges the Ibsen woman, the comrade, the heroine of a whole megalopolitan literature from Northern drama to Parisian novel. Instead of children, she has soul-conflicts; marriage is a craft-art for the achievement of ‘mutual understanding’.”

Traditional life faces the same doom in many of today’s poor countries. Iranian women bore seven children on average in 1979, but today bear fewer than two. That is the fastest fertility decline in recorded history, and probably took place in Iran because it was the first Muslim country to achieve near-universal adult literacy thanks to the Shah. The once-Catholic countries of Europe from Hungary to Ireland have seen the fastest decline in fertility, and often seem most eager to jettison the old family-centred culture.

East Asia seems no different. In 1950, when most Koreans were poor farmers, Korean women bore five children on average. Today the average is less than 1.3. Modernity, it would appear, is a terminal disease. In most of the world, nothing but the constraints of traditional life had persuaded men and women to marry and raise children in numbers sufficient to perpetuate the species. The blandishments of K-pop and consumerism appear to have overwhelmed South Korea’s residual Confucian impulses; the extremely low South Korean birth rate corresponds to the world’s highest elderly suicide rate, a sad phenomenon of the past 20 years.

Yet there is something different about China. One sees it instantly in entertainment, fashion and advertising. Cosmopolitan magazine’s mainland edition features models in severe if elegant apparel, and business success advice rather than sex tips. Chinese films and advertising portray women in a romantic aura rather than as sex objects. To some extent this stems from official censorship — the government banned provocatively-clad models from this year’s Shanghai Auto Show — but that is not a complete explanation. The Chinese family is strikingly resilient despite the great disruptions to traditional life.

Why hasn’t the decline of traditional society in China led to the same demographic consequences as in South Korea and Japan? We cannot know the answer, in part because we do not have accurate data on the extent of the consequences. But it seems likely that the statistical methods that produced very high estimates of Chinese fertility have some validity, and that the truth lies somewhere in between. And it seems a reasonable conjecture that the value the Chinese place on family life corresponds to a higher birthrate.

China is less affected by the transition from traditional society to modernity, perhaps, because China in some ways has always been modern by design. China is not a country but a construct. The Chinese empire grew from the small territory of the Shang Dynasty in the Yellow River valley 3,500 years ago by assimilating ethnic and language groups into a centralised written culture and administrative structure. Chinese who speak and eat differently were bound together by a common system of ideograms. Universal literacy today requires Chinese children to toil for three or four hours a day between the ages of six and 11 simply to learn to read the characters that allow them to communicate with other Chinese who speak distinctly different languages. Adult literacy, though, had already reached 20-30 per cent by the turn of the Common Era.

As China’s empire expanded to its natural boundaries, those Asiatic peoples who became Chinese pledged loyalty not to an ethnicity as in post-Roman Europe, but to an empire. China was not a fixed entity but an expanding one, where culture determined geography. This empire, moreover, offered everyone who could learn the characters the chance to join the Mandarin bureaucracy and become wealthy. As often as it collapsed the system re-created itself, because it was of the nature of what it meant to be Chinese. The empire, moreover, preserved the extended family farm as the primary unit of economic life. The head of household was an emperor in miniature, such that family harmony was social harmony: that is the nub of Confucius. The Chinese do not need to study Confucius’s texts; they have lived them for thousands of years.

The Chinese are as persuaded of the eternity of the Middle Kingdom as are the Jews of the eternity of Israel. Nations may rise and fall, languages may fall silent forever, but China as concept and culture has no end. In this vastness the rock and refuge of the individual has always been the family. China has had a “modern” dimension — centralisation and unifying literacy — since its foundation, and Chinese families have had thousands of years to learn to cope with it. Among the many things that Jews and Chinese have in common is a firm belief that they have a future to look forward to. Of all the factors that figure into the decision to have children, this is among the most powerful.

That is not true elsewhere in East Asia, where nations founded on ethnicity feel deeply the ennui and fragility of the modern world. Japanese peasants who move from farming villages to urban apartment buildings leave behind the Shinto spirits who infested their rural life. Uprooted Japanese become deracinated, and it is not surprising that Japan has become the world’s largest market for specialised pornography. Koreans do not have the Japanese’s taste for pornography, but their sex trade generates more revenues relative to GDP (at 1.6 per cent of the total) than any other rich country in the world. The two economic powerhouses of East Asia appear to have lost their cultural compass in the modern world, and that may be why their interest in raising children has diminished so drastically.

In 2013, China relaxed the one-child policy for urban areas, allowing families to have two children if one parent is an only child. There has been no birth surge in response, and some analysts argue that the incentive to concentrate the whole of a family’s resources on one “princeling” will trump the desire for more children. It is too early to guess the outcome. But China has done nothing but surprise the world for the past half-century. It is as dangerous as it is facile to assume that demographic decline will attenuate China’s growing power.

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