Lessons for India

By Gwynne Dyer
  • Published 29.10.07

Even before the 17th congress of the Chinese Communist Party began last week in Beijing, it was clear that at least one policy was not going to change: the one-child policy. “Because China has worked hard over the last 30 years, we have 400 million fewer people,” said Zhang Weiqing, minister in charge of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, earlier this year.

In the eyes of the policy’s supporters, that justifies the infringements on people’s freedoms that are involved. True, a few women (or a few million) were dragged off to have forced abortions in the bad old days, but now it’s much more civilized. Besides, the end justifies the means, doesn’t it?

Not having 1.7 billion people now (and not having over two billion in twenty years’ time) is clearly a desirable outcome for China. Even with decades of high-speed economic growth, there is a limit to how many people China can feed and clothe and house. But did the regime really have to impose such a draconian birth-control policy?

The doubters point out that the Chinese government’s ‘soft’ birth-control policy in the Seventies — encouraging later marriage, fewer births and longer birth intervals — brought the total fertility rate down from 5.7 in 1970 to 2.9 by 1979, one of the fastest drops in birth-rate seen anywhere at any time. And it happened before the one-child policy was introduced in 1980.

The famous “demographic transition” from high-birth-rate, high-death-rate societies to longer-lived communities with lower birth rates still works its magic eventually. But it does take its time. Compulsion does make a difference.

Lessons for India

India and China both started out in the Sixties with very similar fertility rates, and at that time China’s population (648 million) was much bigger than India’s (433 million). But by 1980, China’s fertility rate was already down (without compulsion) to the rate that prevails in India today. With compulsion, it has fallen even further, to little more than half the current Indian fertility rate. So China’s population will level off at around 1.4 billion by 2020, while India’s will go on growing to at least 1.7 billion.

How much difference does that make in practice? A lot. If China had taken India’s approach, its population would probably reach 2 billion before it stopped growing. China’s economic miracle (10 per cent growth for the past two decades) skates permanently along the edge of environmental calamity. The country has lost almost 7 per cent of its farmland to development in the past decade. Dozens of cities are already experiencing severe water shortage. What would it have been like without the one-child policy?

In large parts of the world, it is not politically acceptable to suggest that the sheer number of people can be a problem. Population control is startlingly absent, for example, from discussions about how to minimize climate change. It is partly out of concern for the religious sensibilities of some people, and partly because of human rights issues that it raises.

There have been relaxations in the one-child policy over the years — ethnic minorities are largely exempt from the rules, and rural families whose first child is female are allowed a second try — but almost two-thirds of Chinese families really do have only one child. And it is clear from the government’s determination to retain the policy that it intends to bring the population down in the longer run, whatever the collateral social damage.

Most ecologists would say that China is well beyond its long-term ‘carrying capacity’ even with its present population. Maybe the government is actually listening to them. Maybe it also knows that climate change will not be kind to China. There are things worse than a one-child policy. Famine, social disintegration and civil war, for example.