Li Mei, now forty-five years old, sells balloons on the street corner of China’s capital city, Beijing. Here she migrated from her small, rural town in Hunan — over a 10 hour bus ride. When told China’s one child policy has finally been lifted, a wide smile graces her face. She relates a story about how in her small of Hunan town, she paid hundreds of dollars in fines to have her three children, leaving her future and that of her children burdened with debt. She says, “Everyone wants to have a second child, but the fines are a burden on us. But that’s the policy, and we can’t fight it.”
Hotel worker Li Meng Jeng, also a Beijing resident, professes that raising children in the city is much more expensive than in the rural province of Hunan, and welcomes a Chinese future with a lesser population. “Having a lot of people is troublesome. You have to line up to get on a bus or do just about anything. It’s not like in other countries where everyone’s so orderly.”
However, leading economic and demographic experts equally agree; it is far too late to change the damage that has already been done. Currently, for each 100 Chinese girls, they are 120 Chinese boys. More devastating than the gender imbalance is the now rapidly aging population and the lack of policies to support it.
The current average age for Chinese citizens is 37, only one less than that of Americans. But according to UN demographic predictions, the US average will only grow to 42 by 2050 while that of the Chinese will rest at 50, only 7 years beneath the average retirement age. The socialist state before China’s 1980 reform generally would care for all the needs of it’s population including housing, health care, education, and sustenance, but after it’s capitalistic reform, such programs have fallen to disrepair despite China’s incredible GDP growth and decrease in population in poverty.
The one-child policy was initially enacted to decrease the strain on the government to care for it’s many impoverished citizens and their families, and has contributed to China’s rise to one of the greatest economic powers of today. China currently has more billionaires than any other country in the world, with the count sitting at 596. Social security policies that have been responsible for the care of the elderly and families in poverty have become unnecessary as the population has fallen almost exclusively in China’s elite working class. The clock is ticking, and soon this working class will become the largest class of elderly ever seen. China currently has no form of full-time social security for the elderly, despite having unemployment insurance, universal health care, and worker’s compensation insurance.
The responsibility often falls on sons to care for elderly parents, contributing to the gender imbalance China is now facing. Entire villages, known as “bachelor villages,” have been filled with men, of which 20% statistically will never be able to find brides.
Stretching even further out to the future, lifting the one-child policy will not be enough to encourage a demographic change. With at least 20% of all Chinese men unable to find partners, they will be unable to start families to care for them when they grow old. According to the Population Reference Bureau, single children are less likely to have larger families, partially because single children are far more likely to reach higher education and obtain steady employment. The inevitable and unchangeable elder crisis China will face as a result will surely doom their domestic and international economy. China’s economy is one of the world’s largest, with a 9.24 trillion GDP, behind only United States and European Union. If China cannot plan to keep their working class stable, it’s elderly crises will send the world into a global recession, with economists such as Adam Hayes of Cornell University pointing to danger signs which are already showing. Chinese stocks have infamously run through a drop-and-halt movement with in the last few months, sending traders everywhere on edge and leading to the worst yearly stock opening in over a decade. It’s not to say that the Chinese Government is not doing whatever they can to stabilize the situation before ruin settles in; the stock drops are essential to creating a more stable, slow growth economy over the risky, rapid growth path that China has been on before. The devaluing of the renminbi was another smart move to encourage more stable international commerce. But it’s only a matter of time before China’s demographic bomb becomes too much to fix with such tactics.
Once possible suggestion towards a healthier demographic future, recommended by renowned economists, demands that China loosen it’s current tight immigration policies and extend citizenship for foreigners. Immigrants are most often working age and tend to have larger families than naturalized citizens, and is the main reason why the United States has a relatively stable population pyramid despite decreasing birth rates. Legislation in such a direction, however, is unlikely because of China’s communistic nature. Regardless, it is impossible to predict what kind of solution China will try next.
As of now, only the future can tell the true fate China is heading for.