Sep 03, 2014 05:43 PM

What People's Daily Got Wrong in Latest Population Policy Argument

The People's Daily published an article on August 29 discussing the supposed problems that have come with easing a population control policy that allows qualified couples to have a second child. The article by the Communist Party-backed newspaper went further, discussing the dangers that will come with easing population controls in general. However, People's Daily not only misjudged China's demographics, but also misled readers about certain policies.

It said "implementing scientific population policies and using measures to control fertility rates is a common practice in many countries around the world." However, this ignores the difference between voluntary and compulsory. Indeed, many countries have measures intended to influence fertility rates, but only China employs compulsory government measures. In other countries, birth control depends on the willingness of families. More importantly, China is now among the countries with the lowest fertility rates in the world, far too low to support population replacement.

The article then explained that "China's population is characterized by a large base and fast growth rate."

This argument is confusing. Despite the large base, China's population density ranks 84th among the 233 countries and regions in the world, UN data show. Some may argue that its population is unevenly distributed, but even excluding the sparsely populated western regions, density is still lower than Britain, Germany, Italy and Switzerland.

It is also unfair to say that China's population has grown too fast because it has remained lower than the world average over the past 200 years. In 1820, 1950, 1980 and 2013, its share of the world's population slid from 35 percent to 21.8 percent to 22.1 percent and finally to 19 percent. Last year, the country's newborns accounted for only 12 percent of the world's total.

The People's Daily article went on to say that "as the world's largest developing country, China faces problems regarding its big population, weak foundation and fewer per capita resources."

It is unclear that what the article means when it says "weak foundation" and what the link between this weak foundation and population control is. What is clear is that over the long history of China's development, its economy has experienced ups and downs, and it is only in recent decades that the population issue was highlighted. Now, China is the world's second-largest economy, and only 29.6 percent of the world's population lives in countries with higher per capita GDP. But the central government is still implementing the strictest policies in the world to control births.

It is true that China's per capita consumption of many natural resources is lower than the global average. But it is misleading to use the average level to measure a country's reserves because natural resources are distributed unevenly and a large portion of countries holds below average amounts. For instance, 167 of the 233 countries and regions in the world have per capita holdings of arable land lower than the global average. This accounts for 69 percent of the world's population.

The article also warned that without population controls in place in recent decades, China's population may have hit 1.8 billion. This sounds frightening, but may be groundless. Considering the situations in other countries, without its one-child policy China may have added as many as 200 million more people. This figure echoes an estimate made by Ma Jiantang, director of the National Bureau of Statistics.

Officials have actually lowered their estimates of China's population peak over the past years, without explanation. In 1996, a government report on food security estimated that by 2030, the total population would reach 1.6 billion. In 2005, Zhang Weiqing, then director of the Family Planning Commission, said it may exceed 1.5 billion by 2033. Then last year, a senior official at the National Health and Family Planning Commission said that by 2020, China's population will be around 1.4 billion.

The article also stated that "population controls have reduced China's dependency ratio, which contributed about one-fourth to economic growth." But the impact of birth control on economic development lags. The real driving force of China's fast growth in recent decades should be credited to reform and opening up. Birth control's contribution to economic growth was limited, but it will lead to problems related to an aging population and sacrifices in future growth.

The People's Daily piece also argued that if the government eases controls and allows all couples to have a second child now, the country will see 10 million more babies born every year, putting pressure on the education and health care systems. It cited "much research" and "experts" without providing details.

China's population policies have long been clouded by overestimations. The 2000 census indicated that the fertility rate – the number of births per 1,000 women – was 1.22, but media reports and policymakers frequently cited 1.8. Then in 2010, the census showed that the fertility rate was 1.4.

When evaluating the impact of a new policy that allows couples in which at least one parent is an only child to have a second baby, one official estimate had the fertility rate surging to 2.4, or 26 million newborns per year. Qiao Xiaochun, a professor of demographics at Peking University, predicted that up to 4.4 million qualified couples will have a second baby in the first year after the new policy was in place.

Perhaps not. As of May 31, all of the country's provinces, multiplicities and regions, barring Xinjiang and Tibet, have had the policy in place for more the two months, but only 270,000 applications for a second child have been filed. This represents about 2.5 percent of the qualified couples.

From 2014 to 2024, the number of women aged 23 to 28 is expected to fall from 74 million to 41 million. If the fertility rate remains unchanged, the number of newborns will decline by nearly half. To support sustainable growth, now is the time to lift the one-child policy. Experiences in other countries show that boosting the fertility rate is a tough task and it takes a long time to see the effects. This will be a major challenge for China in the coming decades.

The country's fertility rate has remained low, but still supporting population replacement for more than 20 years. Maintaining this situation may pose a threat to the country's growth and security. Any discussion on demographic issues should be serious, responsible and provide concrete data. Otherwise, it will mislead the public and policymakers and cause the country great losses.

Liang Jianzhang is a co-founder and chairman of International Ltd. He holds a PhD degree in economics from Stanford University, specializing in labor market. Huang Wenzheng is a biostatistics expert at Johns Hopkins University

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