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China formally ends ineffective one-child policy — decades too late

For the past 30 years, China has enforced a one-child policy with vigor. (Alain Le Garsmeur/CORBIS)
For the past 30 years, China has enforced a one-child policy with vigor. (Alain Le Garsmeur/ CORBIS)

Faced with a deep economic slowdown for the first time since the 1970s, the headline news emerging today from the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党) at its fifth plenum this week is that it will formally end its one-child policy as the country deals with the more pressing problem of a rapidly aging population.China Flag Icon

The meeting, where the Communist Party will design its 13th five-year program for the Chinese economy, is an important moment for ruling officials to chart the path that Chinese president Xi Jinping (习近平) will carry forward through the end of his first term and a second term to which Xi will presumably be selected in 2017.

Though the Chinese government has been relaxing the terms of the one-child policy for years, today’s step formally ends a policy first enacted in 1978 at a time when China’s economy and demographics were far different than today. In the wake of the post-Mao era, Chinese Communist officials worried that exponential population growth would worsen environmental problems that were becoming apparent four decades ago, spread too thinly resources for educating a new generation of Chinese children and keep the country mired in poverty.

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RELATED: China’s stock market crash is a political, not economic, crisis

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After introducing the one-child policy, China turned to the neighborhood associations that Mao Zedong created throughout the country to enforce the new family planning edict. Almost overnight, local party infrastructure became an essentially intrusive mechanism to keep Chinese families in line and restrict reproductive freedom in the name of collective development. Parents who violated the policy faced monetary fines and, in some cases, forced abortions or even forced abductions of their second child. Throughout China, second children essentially became pariahs, and they faced restrictions on government-funded health care and education.

Farmers in parts of rural China were exempted from the policy, especially when their first child was a daughter. Moreover, ethnic minorities (even in urban areas) were exempt from the policy as well. In 2013, China relaxed the policy even further by allowing parents to have two children so long as both parents themselves were only children. That exemption largely ended the policy, meaning that today’s decision to end the one-child policy is more a formality than a real change. In an era where Xi has cracked down on political dissent and Internet freedom and arguably launched a widespread crackdown on corruption to purge rivals within the ruling Party apparatus, today’s decision is a rare extension of Chinese freedoms.

Gauged by the worries of policymakers in the 1970s, the one-child policy has been a slight success. That’s at least insofar as parents and grandparents dote on a country full of only children, deploying each family’s resources on the educational and developmental progress of a single child. But it’s the country’s breakneck growth, not family planning, that played a far greater role in lifting China out of poverty. Four decades of economic liberalization and international trade, which began under Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s, is responsible for that. It helped that China didn’t face the kind of turmoil that roiled it during World War II and the civil wars of the 1940s, the rural famine that marked Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ of the 1950s or the political terror of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.

Moreover, what’s become increasingly clear in retrospect is that the one-child policy may have accomplished far more harm than good by accelerating the aging of China’s population and by facilitating a highly imbalanced sex ratio of boys to girls.

Thomas Malthus’s largely discredited brand of population economics inspired the one-child policy.

The intellectual roots of the one-child policy lie partially in the problematic economic ideas of Thomas Malthus, who argued at the end of the 18th century that rapid population growth would be invariably met with disease, starvation and war. If left unchecked, a doubling of the population would burden the ability of a country’s land to generate enough food to support a demographic explosion. But the human experience over the ensuing two centuries has been exactly the opposite as innovations in agriculture have produced far more food with increasingly less labor. In the year 1800, global population is estimated to have been around one billion; today, it’s 7.4 billion and growing at a time when global poverty is in decline.

Moreover, by the time that China’s policymakers got around to introducing the one-child policy, China’s fertility rate was already rapidly declining, matching global trends in both the developing and the developed world, partially as a result of the widespread availability of medical birth control. The one-child policy, estimated to have prevented between 250 million and 500 million births, had the effect of pushing China’s birthrate away from that of a developing closer to one much more characteristic of a developed country. But as the chart below shows, as based on UN data, China’s birthrate had already slowed long before the one-child policy took hold.



Had China done nothing, fertility rates would have naturally continued to decline — and all without expending the costly efforts to restrict freedom in such an intimate and fundamental way.

For all the costs of enforcing the most restrictive family planning in world history, China doesn’t have much to show as a result.

China’s median age (today) is 36.7 — that’s akin to Iceland and just slightly younger than the United States (37.6), Australia (38.3) and Russia (38.9). The United Nations estimates that by 2025, China’s median age will be essentially the same as the US median age and, thereafter, China’s median age will be ever older.

As its neighbors South Korea (40.2) and Japan (46.1) have aged, however, economic growth has slowed. That might be fine for South Korea and Japan, because they now both enjoy income levels roughly equivalent to developed countries. China, though it’s well on its way to becoming the world’s largest economy, has only just reached middle-income status. So the one-child policy might have put China on a slightly less fertile trajectory — but only slightly.

With economic uncertainty looming, it seems likely that the era of residual double-digit GDP growth in China is coming to an end.  So while China has ‘caught up’ on aging, it hasn’t quite caught up on income levels and per-capita GDP. Even when China transcends its current economic gloom (and it will), it will be more difficult for it to play catch-up with an aging population and fewer working-age people in the labor market. Moreover, the low-hanging fruit of the past three decades — building the infrastructure (hospitals, bridges, schools, entire towns and cities) for a rapidly modernizing country — will be increasingly out of reach for economic planners.

Exacerbating China’s demographic woes is one of the world’s most lopsided sex ratios — only 100 women for every 112 men. There are a lot of reasons for that, including a sex ratio that tilts naturally at around 1.01 in favor of males. But given traditional cultural preferences for males, more Chinese families have opted to ensure that the single child permitted to them is male and not female. In a country of 1.38 billion people, that means that tens of millions of Chinese men have had and, for the foreseeable future will have, only negligible chances for marriage or starting their own families. At a time when economic misery is rising in China, that’s not particularly good news for ruling Party officials who could struggle to contain political and social anger in the event of a prolonged economic slump.

It’s official: China’s new Politburo Standing Committee

As predicted last week: the new Politburo Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party is as follows: 

  • Xi Jinping (习近平), who is expected to become the president of the People’s Republic of China, the general secretary of the Party and ‘paramount leader’, and a ‘princeling’ whose father was a Party dignitary;
  • Li Keqiang (李克强), who is expected to become premier;
  • Zhang Dejiang (张德江), a longtime hand who has served as Party secretary in Guangdong province and most recently, replaced disgraced Party figure Bo Xilai as Party secretary in Chongqing municipality — and also a ‘princeling’;
  • Yu Zhengsheng (俞正声), Party secretary in Shanghai municipality and a princeling as well;
  • Liu Yunshan (刘云山), director of the Party’s propaganda department (i.e., in charge of censorship and Internet restriction as well);
  • Wang Qishan (王岐山), a vice premier for economic, energy and financial affairs, and expected to play a major, reformist role in economic policy in Xi’s government; and
  • Zhang Gaoli (张高丽), currently the Party secretary of Tianjin municipality, and a former official in Shenzhen’s special economic zone.
 Suffragio‘s profiles of Xi and Li will come shortly, but in the meanwhile, you can read all about the five new members by clicking the links above.

The Politburo Standing Committee has been reduced from nine members to just seven.  Interestingly, the five new members (Xi and Li were already members) are relatively old — and so old that they will not be eligible for re-appointment in 2017 at the next National Congress because each will be older than the 67-year age limit for members of the committee.

Both Zhang Gaoli and Zhang Dejiang, as well as Yu Zhengsheng are firmly protégés of former president Jiang Zemin (江泽民), who preceded current president Hu Jintao (胡锦涛), who is stepping down to make way for Xi.

Left out are two key Hu allies: Li Yuanchao, currently director of the Party’s organization department, and Wang Yang, Party secretary in Guangdong province and perhaps the most notable advocate for political reform.

Liu Yandong, the only woman serving on the Politburo, also failed to make the cut.

As has been predicted in recent days, Xi will become the general secretary of the Party and will also immediately assume the chairmanship of the CPC Central Military Commission.

Xi is currently speaking to the press now, and his speaking style surely seems much more relaxed and expressive than Hu’s.

Fifth Generation: Who is Zhang Gaoli?

This is the first in a series of posts examining the Chinese leaders expected to be named to the Politburo Standing Committee during the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党) that kicked off November 8.

With the apparent finalization of the seven members (reduced from nine) of the new Politburo Standing Committee, it appears that Zhang Gaoli (张高丽) has made the cut, and indeed, Zhang typifies the ‘new’ faces of the so-called ‘fifth generation’ of China’s leadership — neither incredibly new nor incredibly liberal.

Zhang, age 66, would be among the oldest of the Standing Committee’s new members and is a protégé of former president Jiang Zemin (江泽民).  Although Zhang is expected to be a strong voice for continued economic reform, he’s not exactly a liberal reformer in the style of Wang Yang, the Party secretary in Guangdong who has been relatively lax about censorship and restrictions on political speech.

What does stand out about Zhang’s record, though, is that he’s been at the forefront of China’s economic wave in three different positions in three urban hot spots on China’s eastern coast over the past 15 years — so much so that Zhang could emerge as the new executive vice premier, essentially the lead economics policymaker in China — it’s thought that he and Wang Qishan (王岐山) are in competition for the role.

Currently, Zhang currently serves as the Party secretary in Tianjin municipality — along with Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, Tianjin is one of four municipalities that is essentially governed like China’s other provinces.  Tianjin, just north of Beijing, has long been a key transportation hub on eastern China’s coast and, with 11.1 million people, China’s fourth largest city — to put it in perspective, Tianjin has just a handful more people than Chicago and New York combined.  As Party secretary, Zhang has been instrumental in developing Tianjin’s Binhai New Area — a new economic zone along the coast that aims to replicate the Pudong New Area in Shanghai, and by all accounts, is succeeding at breakneck speed, and has already surpassed Pudong in terms of GDP.

In many ways, his ascent parallels the ascent of China’s emergence as a global economic power, with all the positive and negative attributes that brings — admirers point to his fervor for liberalizing China’s economy, but critics decry debt-financed public-sector spending on misguided infrastructure:

All this debt-fuelled investment in trophy projects has certainly resulted in rapid headline growth rates, and clearly it has boosted Zhang’s career. But how much of it will ever generate an economic return is doubtful. The handful of analysts who have examined Tianjin’s finances in detail warn of a massive bad debt explosion in the making….  As party boss in Tianjin, Zhang has proved himself an ardent proponent of China’s investment-at-all-costs growth trajectory.

That is exactly the model economists say Beijing must now reject if it is to avoid the dreaded middle-income trap and sustain its development over the next 10 years.

Unfortunately, if Zhang does indeed succeed to the economic policy hot-seat next week, it looks as if China’s chances of a successful rebalancing away from debt-funded investment and towards growth powered by private consumption will be severely diminished.

Perhaps more fundamentally, however, Zhang made his mark as the Party secretary of Shenzhen from 1997 to 2002.  Shenzhen is a special economic zone adjacent to Hong Kong — it was essentially opened up to free-market policies by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and it was one of the first experiments in the great transformation of China from a Maoist communist economy one into a ‘market socialist’ economy.  Continue reading Fifth Generation: Who is Zhang Gaoli?

Unveiling the PRC’s new Politburo Standing Committee members

In advance of the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党), set to begin November 8, the South China Morning Post printed Friday what it believes will be the list of the seven members of the most elite body in Chinese policymaking: the Party’s Politburo Standing Committee. The list has been corroborated by other news sources, and while not final, seems very likely to be the seven set to be appointed at the Congress.

The Standing Committee, expected to be reduced from nine to just seven members, is drawn from the larger (~25 members) Politburo, which itself is drawn from the ~300-member Central Committee of the Party.

If the reports are accurate, the Standing Committee will include the following members:

  • Xi Jinping (习近平), a member of the Standing Committee since 2007 and the current vice president of the People’s Republic of China, is widely expected to replace Hu Jintao as China’s ‘paramount leader,’ general secretary of the Party and, later in March 2013, as PRC president.  Xi is a ‘princeling,’ one of a group of current Chinese political leaders whose fathers were also senior Party leader during the first decades of Communist rule in China.  His father, Xi Zhongxun, was purged during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.  Xi previously served as the Party secretary of Zhejiang province (essentially, Shanghai’s hinterland on the south-central coast of eastern China) and then of Shanghai municipality in 2007 until becoming vice president.
  • Li Keqiang (李克强), also a Standing Committee member since 2007 and the PRC’s executive vice premier, is widely expected to replace Wen Jiabao as China’s premier in March 2013.  He served as Party secretary in Liaoning  province from 2004 to 2007.  He’s seen as a Hu protege, but will have a hard time following Wen, who remains perhaps the most charismatic and genuinely popular Party leader within the PRC today.
  • Wang Qishan (王岐山), a vice premier for economic, energy and financial affairs and a Politburo member since 2007, is seen as one of the most capable up-and-coming Chinese leaders.  Notably, he’s also seen as a proponent of further liberalization of China’s economy, additional fiscal reforms, and further foreign development and investment.  He headed the China Construction Bank in the 1990s, took over as the Party chairman of Hainan province (the tropical island at the south of the Chinese mainland) from 2002 to 2003 and served as mayor of Beijing from 2003 to 2007 before his appointment as vice premier.
  • Zhang Dejiang (张德江), a vice premier for energy, telecommunications, and transportation and a Politburo member since 2002, like Wang, is a protege of former PRC president Jiang Zemin, Hu’s predecessor, and like Xi, is also a ‘princeling.’ Zhang has a long career in Chinese politics — he was Party secretary of Jilin province (in China’s northeast, bordering North Korea and Russia) from 1995 to 1998 under Jiang, Party secretary of Zhejiang province from 1998 to 2002, Party secretary of Guangdong province (the largest province in China, and the home of Guangzhou and the Pearl River valley, where much of China’s amazing export growth has taken place in the past two decades) from 2002 to 2007, during the worst of the SARS crisis, and most recently, since March 2012, the Party secretary of Chongqing municipality following the removal of disgraced Chinese leader Bo Xilai.
  • Yu Zhengsheng (俞正声), currently the Party secretary of Shanghai municipality and a Politburo member since 2002, is also a princeling, and was very close to former leader Deng Xiaoping as well as to Jiang.  He was the PRC’s minister of construction from 1998 to 2001, Party chair of Hubei province in central China from 2002 to 2007, and thereupon became Party secretary of Shanghai.
  • Liu Yunshan (刘云山), director of the Party’s propaganda department and a Politburo member since 2002, who will likely remain in charge of propaganda and censorship.  Certainly no princeling, Liu rose up through the Party’s youth league.  His elevation to the Standing Committee marks a victory for the more conservative elements of the Party.
  • Zhang Gaoli (张高丽), currently the Party secretary of Tianjin municipality and a Politburo member since 2007, and yet another Jiang protege.  Zhang rose to prominence as the Party secretary in Shenzhen from 1997 to 2002 — Shenzhen is the special economic zone adjacent to Hong Kong that emerged as one of the PRC’s few early free-market zones, and Zhang’s experiences there make it likely that he’ll be among the Standing Committee members most likely to support further economic reform.  He thereupon became Party secretary of Shandong province, just south of Beijing on east-central coast of China, from 2002 to 2007, and was thereafter appointed to his current post in Tianjin.

If the line-up is confirmed later this month, it will mark a significantly conservative leadership with respect to most reforms, although potentially much more open to further economic reforms.  These seven Standing Committee members would be seen as much closer to Jiang than to the ‘fourth generation’ leaders, Hu and Wen. Continue reading Unveiling the PRC’s new Politburo Standing Committee members