January 30, 2007


China's getting old before it becomes rich: AGING POPULATION LACKS SUPPORT OF PENSIONS, FAMILY (Evan Osnos, 1/30/07, Chicago Tribune)

A generation after China adopted its unprecedented one-child policy, the world's most populous nation is aging faster than any major country in history. The graying of the population, lost in the astonishing statistics on China's economy, threatens to hinder growth and strain a frayed public-welfare system, say researchers in China and abroad.

``They are looking at 400 million old people, 30 years from now, the vast majority of whom will not have pensions or health care or extended family,'' said Richard Jackson, director of the Global Aging Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``This is social and political dynamite, and the government knows it.''

The problem is a peculiar side effect of progress. For most of Chinese history, people over 60 rarely numbered more than 7 of every 100 people. But improved health care, sanitation and living standards since the Communist Revolution have allowed the average citizen to live more than 30 years longer than in 1949. At the same time, China has restricted family size since the late 1970s in an attempt to control population growth.

The result is a China-size version of America's Social Security crunch, in which there are neither enough offspring nor pension funds to finance tomorrow's retirements. But China faces an even greater hurdle, because its per-capita income remains barely a tenth of U.S. levels. As economists put it, China is getting old before it has gotten rich.

``Feeding the people is the most common problem in developing countries, and taking care of the elderly is the most common problem in developed countries. China has to solve both at the same time,'' said Hu Angang, an economist at Qinghua University in Beijing.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 30, 2007 2:35 PM

You'd think this problem should be pretty easy for China to solve: just lift the one-child policy. After all, the birthrate is held down, not by cultural changes or secularism, but by law. I think there's pent-up demand for having more kids.

An interesting alternative is immigration. China wouldn't be a magnet like the US, of course. But I wonder if a program of mail-order brides from Africa (where population growth and a tendency for men to marry much younger women actually makes polygyny demographically feasible) would help? The "bare branches" who, as it is, have no chance to marry at all, might be willing to overcome racial prejudices and language barriers to get a wife.

Posted by: Nathan Smith at January 30, 2007 3:27 PM

Europe doesn't have a one child policy.

Posted by: oj at January 30, 2007 3:40 PM

Honor thy father and thy mother, etc.

One child ain't natural, and it's got to be paid for.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 30, 2007 4:00 PM

Nathan, Mark Steyn has proposed Russia, which will have a surfeit of women shortly due to poor male longevity, as a more geographically convenient matching source.

But I agree with oj that lifting the ban won't have significant effect on birthrate due to cultural conditioning (e.g. My boss, recent citizen but born and educated in PROC: One little prince with no plans for more.)

Posted by: TimF at January 30, 2007 4:44 PM

In China, the lack of a strong pension/Social Security system, and very strong Confucian traditions of honoring parents, would make children a pretty good means of social insurance if they were permitted. I think China is less unmoored from traditional values than Europe. Certainly their work ethic is far healthier.

I've seen studies on pent-up demand for children in Europe (Germany) and China; I remember that the Chinese want more children, the Germans don't. Will post them if I find them.

I'm sure Chinese would be happy to marry Russians, but the Russians might be unwilling. They look down on the Chinese somewhat. No doubt it happens sometimes. I think Africa is a better bet. Hey, China's already acting like a colonialist power in Sudan. Maybe it will become a trend. Chinese young men, going abroad, in search of wealth, adventure and wives.

Posted by: Nathan Smith at January 30, 2007 5:36 PM

Importing hardworking entrepreneurial Chinese into to Russia to marry the leftover ladies would be a great boon for all.

Posted by: erp at January 31, 2007 9:53 AM