During the past 50 years, China has experienced demographic
change at an historic scale. This has had a profound impact upon its population
structure. This article by Barcelona-based Chinese student Niu Yi Qiao outlines
the causes and impacts of the change.
Pre – 1949: China had
experienced a century of imperial decline, natural disasters, foreign invasion
and civil unrest. Life expectancy was as low as 36 years. The communists took
over in 1949 after the civil war and began to modernize China.
1949 – 1958: The
communists shifted their attention to economic development and together with a
rich resource base there was a 10% annual growth rate in the economy. A very
successful healthcare program and better nutrition brought a marked fall in the
death rate, especially in infant mortality. Most of the population was still
rural and people’s minds were still dominated by the traditional view: more
children to work the land, more children as a guarantee for security in old age.
The birth rate was high and consequently the natural increase was rapid.
1958 – 1963: The
communist leader Mao (who was a very successful politician and general, but not
a great economic planner) was impatient with the rate of progress. What followed
was the 'Great Leap Forward' policy (see below), a forced
industrialization during which millions of peasants were made to leave the land
to work in factories. The slogan at the time was 'overtake the British, race the
Americans'. The political mismanagement and low agricultural production (there
was a shortage for farmers) led to widespread famine and caused 25–30 million
deaths, and a 30-35% fall in the birth rate. The death rate rose higher than the
birth rate and the population experienced 5 years of natural decrease.
1962 – 1980: The
'demographic disaster' of the Great Leap Forward was followed
by a baby boom in the mid-1960s and the economy began to recover. The
introduction of private enterprise raised the level of food production.
Throughout the 1970s politicians sought to bring about a drastic reduction in
family size as they realised that a huge population threatened to outgrow the
available resources. What emerged was the 'one child policy', which has been
very successful in reducing birth rates. The implementation of the policy was
harsh and there were strict penalties: the 'Granny Police' watched over couples
of childbearing age, and if a couple had more than one child, both parents would
lose their jobs. The local government would issue a fine large enough to
bankrupt the family and worse, the 'illegal' child would not be given a
'household register' which was necessary for school enrolment and applying for
jobs. Usually, a married couple would fulfil the policy out of fear alone,
although due to industrialisation and improved education, people were becoming
more receptive to new ideas. Contraception was widely practiced throughout China
in order to reduce pregnancies and widen the spacing between births. A steady
reduction in the birth rate resulted.
1980 – 1990: Economic
growth slowed due to inflation and a trade imbalance. Due to the success of the
rigid one child policy, birth rates continued to decrease although in 1984 there
was a slight rise.
1990 – Today: China is
now a 'post-transitional' society, where life expectancy has reached new
heights, fertility has declined to below-replacement level, and rapid population
ageing is on the horizon. In the
not-too-distant future, in a matter of a few decades, China’s population will
start to shrink. In this process, China will also lose its position as the most
populous country in the world to India. The 'one child policy' has recently been
relaxed to a 'two child policy' in many districts in order to avoid the problems
an ageing population could bring. This has additional implications: it is
usually the rural villages that have established the 'two child policy', meaning
that in future China’s population may be dominated by undereducated peasants
(who already comprise 70% of the population). In the more advanced cities, it is
not only the local government policy that maintains a low birthrates, but the
change in people’s mentality. Most Chinese women have their own career and are
unwilling to sacrifice their job for children. The expense of raising a child
has also been taken into consideration by new couples. It is likely the Chinese
government will soon consider a 'three child policy' to force couples into
having more babies in order to maintain a low-cost workforce.
China & India, 1995: Total Population by Age and Sex. Source: UN
Population Division (1995): World Population Prospects, 1950-2050. Chart: G.K. Heilig, 1996, IIASA-LUC
During the Great Leap Forward which was initiated in 1958,
between 25million to 35million Chinese population leaped into the grave. What
was the Great Leap Forward, which had such a profound influence on Chinese
1958 was an important year in the Communist revolution: the
Three Red Flags (the 'General Line', the 'Great Leap Forward' and the 'People's
Commune') were put into effect. The Three Red Flags have a political background.
China like the former USSR employed planned economic developments. After
asserting its position in 1949, the communist government issued two Five Year
Plans. Communist Leader Mao was impatient with the rate China was developing and
sought to quicken the pace, and from this was born the Three Red Flags Policy.
The General Line was simply a general direction for planned
economic development. The essence of the General Line was: 'Kuai, Duo, Hao,
Sheng' – meaning 'fast, numerous, effective and economical'.
The Great Leap Forward was the key cause of the demographic
disaster of 1958-1962. It can be summarized as forced industrialization, during
which millions of farmers were asked to leave the land and work in factories in
the cities. The Great Leap Forward had a profound effect on the industry and
agriculture of China at the time.
Industry: The slogan of the time was 'overtake the
British, race the Americans'. To ensure the high productivity of iron and steel,
the Communist Party Central Committee took several steps, one of them being the
traditional 'human sea' tactic – the entire population was asked to join. Even the blockhouses leftover from
WWII were turned into mini blast furnaces. When there was a shortage of iron
ore, local government officials led the local people (including schoolboys and
elderly grannies) to nearby hills in search for a possible source of ore. In
many areas, cooking utensils and in fact, any iron or steel-made objects
(bicycle parts, hammers, etc) were taken away to be melted and used as raw
Agriculture: There was an equally harsh, if not worse
demand in agriculture. During early 1958, the slogan was 'quantity, not
quality'. By the end of 1958, quality disappeared altogether and only the
numbers mattered. In many cases, local officials faked the production of crops.
In one case, the local authority claimed that they managed to grow 65,217
kilograms of rice in one acre of land. It was discovered later that the farmers
had plucked all the rice seedlings from other parts of the countryside and
squeezed them into one plot. What resulted from the Great Leap Forward of
agriculture was eventually the worst famine China has ever experienced: causing
25-35 million deaths.
The People’s Commune was named after the Paris Commune
during the French Revolution. It was first mentioned in an essay 'New Society,
New People' published in the 'Red Flag' magazine. During 1958, Mao formally
raised the issue of 'communities' with the society. Farming communities were
militarized – a commune was a town-sized community controlling a dozen
production brigades, which in turn contained several production lines. It was in
some ways a wonderful, if typical communist idea – each production line was a
large family. The farmers ate together in a canteen and lived within close
distance to each other. Within the community everyone had food to eat, work to
do. It was also believed that when the land was combined, farming would be more
efficient. Unfortunately, the People’s Commune, like most other communist
policies, suffered from violations of human rights. Since all the farmers ate in
a common canteen, cooking at home was absolutely forbidden. If smoke was seen
coming from your chimney, the cauldrons, boilers, pans, and any other cooking
utensil would be smashed as punishment. The People’s Commune also had severe
negative impacts on society. Within the commune, everyone expected each other to
do the work and so productivity was low. Wasting food was a common sight because
the food wasn’t earned by the people’s sweat and toil.
Conclusion: The Three Red Flags policy was a failure,
mostly because Mao tried to force the development of China's economy, industry
and agriculture. He once said that China was a 'country powerful in terms of its
population, but not its economy.' In his attempt to turn China into an economic
power, he only succeeded in pulling her backwards.
The one child policy has avoided the birth of 400 million
people in three decades, according to the Chinese government, although, in fact,
it applies to only 36% of the population and in the countryside many babies are
not registered. Therefore, according to different institutions, the Chinese
population in 2007 is in fact 1,600 million and not 1,300 as is officially
announced. The government announced in April 2007 that the Chinese population
will be less than 1,360 million in 2010 and 1,450 million in 2020.