Old, Lonely, and Male: Unpacking China's Demographics

Image: BBC


Shrinking and ageing. Those are the defining characteristics of China’s 430 million families, China’s Ministry of Health and Family Planning recently reported.


According to the 2014 China Family Development Report released earlier in May, the size of Chinese families has fallen from 5.3 to 3.02 people per family since the 1950’s. While the decrease in family size has been gradual over the past few years, China’s families steadily continue to shrink. From 2010 to 2012, family size has fallen from 3.10 to 3.02.


The report’s other major finding was the increasing age of China’s families. Chinese families are now commonly composed of four grandparents, two parents, and one child. 160 million of China’s 430 million families now have this “4-2-1” makeup. The One-Child Policy dramatically shrunk the youth population, leaving China with over 180 million people over the age of 60--a number that experts expect to increase to 330 million in 2050. This large elderly population has become a burden for China because there are not enough young people to care for the older generation.


A surplus of elderly citizens and a lack of young ones is a bad start, but when a skewed male-female ratio gets mixed in, the effects become dangerous. China’s current sex ratio is 118 males to every 100 females. This has created a massive bachelor population and has increased instances of human trafficking, violence, substance abuse, and gang activity.


How did China’s demographic situation get this bad? The One-Child Policy is to blame for the majority of these issues, but other social and cultural changes have also altered China’s population makeup.


The One-Child Policy is an obvious cause for the decline in family size in China, but recent social changes have also contributed to this trend. According to China Daily, changing attitudes towards marriage and the pursuit of education and careers has prompted many young Chinese people to marry late or remain single. The Family Development Report revealed that from 2000 to 2010, the number of single-person households doubled. Under the One-Child Policy, those who do marry must have small families anyway. Even with the recent changes to the policy, many couples who are now eligible to have two children are choosing not to due to the rising cost of education and housing.


China’s disproportionate amount of elderly citizens is largely the result of the One-Child Policy, and changing attitudes towards traditional living arrangements are now exacerbating the problem. In the past, children were expected to live with their parents and grandparents. Now, however, many only children are leaving home to pursue jobs and education and to live on their own. This is particularly common in rural areas where many migrate to cities in search of work. Because elderly care facilities are not common in China, older parents and grandparents are left in poor conditions with no one to care for them. The recent report found that 90% of China’s elderly live at home rather than in assisted living facilities. Another survey found that 37.5 million of China’s elderly were unable to care for themselves in 2013.


An aging population also has serious economic consequences for China. The Washington Post listed some of the negative effects of an aging population, including ”higher pension and healthcare costs, fewer low-income jobs, increased wage depression, slowing economic growth and job creation, declining interest from foreign investors, lower entrepreneurship, and higher budget deficits.”  


In July 2013, following reports of children abusing and ignoring their elderly parents, China passed an “Elderly Rights Law” that allows seniors to sue their children for neglect. Officials have also been working on improving social benefits for seniors, but China’s insufficient pension system is not enough to remedy the plight of the millions of elderly citizens living in poverty. The Chicago Tribune says this problem may be “the wake-up call [Chinese policy makers] need to continue to reform the country's much-maligned family planning policy.”


Like the ageing and shrinking trends in Chinese families, China’s gender imbalance can be blamed on the One-Child Policy. Traditionally, Chinese families have preferred to have boys who can work for the family and carry on the family name. The combination of this cultural preference for boys and the One-Child Policy is deadly for girls, who are often aborted, abandoned, and killed because of their gender. Decades of gendercide have resulted in a surplus of males who are now struggling to find wives. Increased prostitution, trafficking, and violent crime are just some of the consequences of this large bachelor population.


An article by the Washington Post highlighted the danger of this particular demographic issue:


A surplus of 40-50 million bachelors throughout the mid- to late 21st century will have a significant effect on China’s stability and development as a nation: Male criminal behavior drops significantly upon marriage, and the presence of significant numbers of unmarriageable men is potentially destabilizing to societies. In the case of China, the fact that a sizeable percentage of young adult males will not be making that transition will have negative social repercussions, including increased crime, violent crime, crimes against women, vice, substance abuse and the formation of gangs that are involved in all of these antisocial behaviors.


It is clear that China is dealing with a significantly off-balance population. The China Family Development report estimates that by 2040 the total number of Chinese families will increase to 500 million. If population trends continue in their current direction, the effects could be devastating for China. Some experts say that it is too late to remedy China’s demographics even now. According to the Washington Post, “Even if sex ratios were rectified today, young adult sex ratios in China will result in a significant gender imbalance in the adult population for the next 30 years.”


Despite these issues, China continues to desperately cling to the One-Child Policy. This policy has destroyed China’s demographics and threatens to destroy its economy, yet officials continue to brutally enforce birth control, sterilization, abortion, fines, and other family planning practices.


Population control and demographic analysis are real issues that officials must pay attention to, but leaders must not forget that there are real people behind all the demographic data. It gets dangerous when faces are replaced by numbers and officials lose sight of how their policies impact their citizens’ lives.


God sees each person who lives in China. He sees the grieving mother who was forced to abort her child and the elderly couple with no one to care for them. He sees the lonely man who cannot find a wife and the young girl who is trafficked to fill that position. When we are confronted with China’s massive demographic issues, we must remember to pray for all the real people who are affected by these problems.


China is changing. Millions of citizens are migrating across the country for work. Independent singles are challenging traditional styles of family living. The current generation is creating new social norms.


Isn’t it time for China to update its outdated family planning laws too?


By Emilie, All Girls Allowed


All Girls Allowed (http://www.allgirlsallowed.org) was founded by Chai Ling in 2010 with a mission to display the love of Jesus by restoring life, value and dignity to girls and mothers in China and revealing the injustice of the One-Child Policy.  “In Jesus’ Name, Simply Love Her.”


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