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China’s Population Crisis

Last Tuesday, in ten towns across Rongxian county in southern China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, several thousand peasants stormed government offices, torched patrol cars, and fought armed police over fines imposed to enforce Beijing’s one-child policy.

The Rongxian disturbances occurred less than two weeks after approximately 10,000 peasants rioted over the same policy in nearby Bobai county. In Bobai, protesters also set fires, smashed cars, and damaged and looted a government office. As many as five people—including three population-control officials—may have died. Protests occurred in 28 Bobai townships over a three-day period. The central government’s one-child rules vary, depending on location and other factors: Bobai regulations permit families one child if the first was a boy and two if the first was a girl.

Heavy fines helped cause the Bobai disturbances. Some of the penalties were as high as $1,300—in an area where annual incomes average about one-tenth of that amount. Failure to pay such a fine within three days of its assessment can result in the destruction of a family’s home and the seizure of its personal property. There have also been more than 250 instances of the application of “population-control measures”—forced sterilizations and forced abortions—in Guangxi in the last three months. The Guangxi demonstrations appear to have been triggered by this sudden two-pronged crackdown.

As these spontaneous demonstrations in Rongxian and Bobai show, China’s one-child policy is deeply unpopular. In Bobai, officials enforcing the rule are, in the words of one villager, “just like the Japanese invaders during the war.” Defiance of the policy is widespread—only about 35 percent of all Chinese families have complied with official limits, according to one estimate. Family-planning outlaws come from all geographic areas and every economic and social group. In urban China, the wealthy pay the fines for noncompliance or hide their children in big homes. In rural China, the poor continue to procreate and (as the past two weeks have shown) take to the streets to defend their right to reproduce.

Despite such defiance, the Chinese government believes it has managed to control population growth. Official estimates credit the one-child policy, which has been in place since the 1970’s, for preventing up to 300 million births. Beijing views that statistic as evidence of success. The government has, in fact, decided to keep the policy in place until at least 2010 in order to meet the country’s announced population target of 1.36 billion people. That goal may be merely a fantasy, however. By some estimates, China already has a population of more than 1.5 billion.

This massive experiment in social engineering has caused a rapidly aging China—it is often said that the country will grow old before it becomes rich—and has skewed demographics: there are now about 118 boys for every 100 girls, and in a decade there will be about 30 million excess males. Many have speculated about the social consequences of such a demographic imbalance. Some believe that the overabundance of young men—“bare branches,” in popular terminology—will lead the country to war, while others merely see increased prostitution, trafficking in females, and assorted other criminal activity. Whatever happens, it’s clear that none of the policy’s byproducts is socially desirable.

If demography is destiny, then China is in for a disturbing future. And it is clear that the one-child policy is destabilizing the present. Population control through repression, as the Rongxian and Bobai disturbances suggest, is completely unsustainable.


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