Demographic Ageing and structural Imbalances in China

3. Demographic Ageing Process and Structural Imbalances

Through the few figures shown both in Table 1 and Table 2, it has already been possible to outline the process of demographic ageing currently interesting China and which is manifesting its first effects on the age and sex structure of the population. In 20068 China recorded a rate of natural increase of 5.89‰. To make a comparison with a more developed country, it could be sufficient to know that in Italy, in the same year, there was a slightly positive natural increase (equal to 0.0004‰) for the second time after the same value was recorded in 2004 thus interrupting the negative series that had lasted since 19939. The high natural increase is determined by the Chinese birth rate, equal to 12.4‰ (while, for instance, the Italian rate in 2006 was equal to 9.5 ‰10), still high, but decreasing from the value of 13.6‰ of the previous year as shown in table 2. The Chinese population distribution by age and sex can be effectively summarized by the population pyramid (Figure 2), which allows us to appreciate the structure still young, characterized by a still large base, albeit narrower than the central band, and a reduced presence in the higher age. Figure 2 also shows the shape of the demographic pyramid in 1950, putting in evidence the differences with today’s shape and the evolution of the population structure: the base in 1950 was larger, as an effect of the higher birth rate (which was 43.8‰ in the period 1950-1955, while the TFR was 6.33 child per woman), and the remarkable decreasing from every age class to the subsequent one, as an effect of the higher value of mortality at every age. As a result of this ‘filling’ of the middle and old classes, the Chinese median age rose from 23.9 years to 32.6 years, a considerable value but still far from that of the industrialized western countries (Italy, for instance, stands at just over 43).

Figure 2: Population pyramid of China. Comparison 1950-2006 (percentage values for each sex11)
Source: for 1950, own elaborations on United Nations, 2006; for 2006, own elaborations on National Bureau of Statistics of China (2006).

The rounded numbers reported in figure 6 refer to some peculiarities of the Chinese pyramid of 2006, that can be briefly explained as follows:
1. after the baby boom, there was a births deficit due to the famine of 1959-1961, which is evident (more for females than for males) from the fact that the previous class is smaller than the subsequent one while, according to the increasing of mortality after age 20, it should have been the opposite;
2. as can be seen in table 2, in the period 1965-1970 (during the so called Cultural Revolution) there was a recovery, defined ‘small baby boom’, due especially to the low age of marriage, which is obvious in the pyramid;
3. from 1975 the fertility starts falling because of the centralized policy of births control, as is plain from the size of the age classes 20-24 and 25-29 years;
4. beginning in the middle 80’s, the passage of many generations at the age of fertility caused a slight recovery in fertility (as can be seen in table 2 for the period 1985-1990) as a result of the cyclical growth in the two previous decades;
5. as a result of the ‘one child policy’, the fertility fell below the replacement level, causing a clear decrease in the number of annual births;
6. the application of practices such as the selective voluntary interruption of pregnancy, which caused an evident lack of females births, and the neglecting of daughters in favour of sons, which caused a higher mortality rate under 5 among females than among males result in a significant deficit of girls in the first age class.
So the different steps of the demographic development of China appear very clearly12: the first, from 1950 to 1955, was a baby boom, followed by years of famine (that would have caused 15-30 million of deaths), which caused a decrease of births. During the Cultural Revolution there was a small recovery (known as small Baby Boom), followed by the a further decreasing phase, interrupted only by a little recovery in the second half of the 80’s, due to the fact that many persons of the small baby boom generation attained the fertile age, causing a slight increase in births. Since the 90’s onwards there begins a rapid drop of fertility to the current level of 1.7 children per woman.
As has already been noticed taking a look at the population pyramid for 2006, and observing the distribution by age and sex of the Chinese population, some structural imbalances can also be detected, surely due to demographic family planning policies put into practice by China that have gradually given rise to some ‘demographic anomalies’: for example, the sex ratio in the first considered age group (0-4 years) has a value of 122.66%, much higher than that typically found in all human populations13 (in Italy, for example, in 2006 it was equal to 105.53%). This unusual value is the result of the selection process put in place inside households to ensure that the only child ‘granted’ by the driven system of birth control is male14. During 2005, according to official estimates, 1,540,436 induced abortions were carried out in China (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2006), but this estimate certainly does not take into account the effect of illegal abortions that could greatly increase this value. Many international organizations have repeatedly sounded the alarm on the use of selective abortion (the scope of which is to select only the male foetuses) which, for obvious reasons relating to the determination of the sex of the unborn child, takes place almost always in the more advanced months of pregnancy.
Furthermore, the infant mortality rates of females are higher than those of males, contrary to what happens in the rest of the world15, where infant mortality is, under natural conditions, higher among males than among females. This anomaly in the infant mortality rates is the consequence of neglecting daughters, not giving them the same care, feeding, vaccinations as the sons: these practices are often fatal for daughters, causing a level of imbalance between the sexes which reaches a peak in China, where the mortality of females in this age group is 28% higher than that of males. This custom directly derives from the inferior standing of women in Chinese society, which is still characterized by a patriarchal system where a male child is still considered essential to maintain the family, to perpetuate the name and ensure social16 and biological reproduction.

Table 3: Infant mortality rates17 by sex (1950-2050)
Source: United Nations, 2006. * Forecast (the same for every scenario)

Table 3 shows the evolution of infant mortality rates by sex and for both sexes combined. It is possible to put in evidence how, if there has been a general decrease in infant mortality, which has passed from the value of 195.0‰ in the period 1950-1955 to the value of 34.7‰ in the period 2000-2005, there has been an inversion in the equilibrium between the two sexes: while until 1990 the male infant mortality rate was higher than that of the females (as it normally is), from that period on that of females began to be higher than the male’s. Currently the male infant mortality rate in China is equal to 27.6‰, while that of females is much higher, reaching a value of 42.5‰. Also projections18 show that the female values will continue to be considerably higher than those of the male, although there will be a progressive reduction of the gap in percentage points between the two sexes.
Table 4 instead shows mortality under five years, putting into evidence how the lack of care for daughters takes place also after birth, causing a higher rate of mortality among little girls than among little boys. In the period 1995-2000, the mortality rate 0-5 was equal to 49‰ for both sexes combined, with a value for males of 43‰ and of 55‰ for females. Also in this case the projections show that there will probably be a reduction of mortality in this age class, but the gap between the two sexes will remain, although of smaller values than in the past. The United Nations estimated that in 2050 the mortality rate under five years will reduce to 14‰, with a lower value for males (13‰) and still higher for females (16‰).

Table 4: Mortality rates under5 years19 by sex (1950-2050)
Source: United Nations, 2006. * Forecast (the same for every scenario).

Concerning the future evolution of the Chinese structure, it is becoming more difficult to anticipate how the numerical imbalance between boys and girls will grow or recede. Hopefully attitudes will evolve towards greater gender equality (Attanè, 2005). In 2001 the Chinese authorities launched a campaign entitled ‘More consideration for girls’ to promote this equality and improve the living conditions of families with single girls, especially in rural areas. The goal is to bring the sex ratio at birth to a normal level by 2010. The Korean experience shows that it is possible to return to a more balanced value. In that country, indeed, the sex ratio at birth had risen in 1980 as in China, reaching 115 boys for every 100 girls in early to mid 1990. But it has fallen since mid-1990 to a lower level, about 110 boys for every 100 girls (Pison, 2004). The efforts of the Korean government to promote the status of women seem to be fruitful, and it can serve as a positive model for China in its efforts towards the achievement of a greater gender equality (Attanè, 2005).
Concerning the structural imbalances, it is also worthy of note that practices such as selective birth control and neglect in the management of females have produced a disproportion between the sexes not only in the first age classes, but also in the more advanced ones20, as is already evident looking at the population pyramid, with consequences that are beginning to be felt even on the ‘marriage market’: for instance, the sex ratio in the age macro-class 20-44, which can be reasonably considered that more concerned with marriage, is more than 106%. It is estimated that from 2010, each year more than a million Chinese will not be able to achieve the desired marriage, because of a lack of women. The apex of this phenomenon will be reached in the middle of the next decade, when generations of boys will achieve the age of marriage, and many will see the chances of finding a wife mortgaged. In China, in fact, the imbalance between the sexes on the marriage market will become greater between 2010 and 2030, when about 1.6 million males per year will be at risk of not being able to get married. At first, the marriage market will be kind of ‘self-regulating’: those who would like to marry will increasingly turn to women of the younger cohorts, and then they will take recourse to two ‘women tanks’ till then holding little appeal, that of widows (finally bringing down the taboo of the second marriage), and especially that involving divorced, increasingly provided by the growing number of divorces. In any case, the candidate husbands must have a lot of patience looking for a wife and, on the whole, marry at a later age (Attanè, 2006). To respond to the growing demand for wives, especially in China but also in other Asiatic countries, transnational networks of ‘wives importation’ are springing up. On the China-Vietnamese border, for example, the migration of women for marriage purposes is booming. This phenomenon has more than one explanation: the first is the strong deficiency of women in southern provinces, while the second is strictly economic, and depends on the increased costs caused by the twin economic reforms of the 80s. It seems that for some poor Chinese families buying a bride is now the only affordable way to find a wife for their son. Moreover, this application meets the economic strategies of Vietnamese immigrant women who hope that marrying a Chinese man will lead to a better life than in their own country.

8 All demographic figures about China in 2006 reported in this paragraph are own elaborations on data from National Bureau of Statistics of China (2006). China Population Statistics Yearbook 2006, compiled by Department of Population and Employment Statistics, China Statistics Press.
9 Istat (2007a), Bilancio demografico nazionale. Anno 2006, Comunicato stampa del 05 luglio 2007.
10 Istat (2007b), Indicatori demografici. Anno 2006, Nota informativa del 26 marzo 2007.
11 Every percentage has been calculated referring to the total population for each sex and each considered year. So this means that the sum of all the frequencies of each pyramid is equal to 2 (or 200% if expressed per 100).
12 For a brief discussion of Chinese ‘modernization’ process see Golini, 2003, pp. 62-67.
13 As already explained, the sex ratio at birth is quite stable in all the human populations, and it attests to a value around 104-106 males for 100 females births.
14 Already in 1990, the Nobel Prize recipient Amartya K. Sen noticed that at that time there were already a hundred million women missing in the world, especially in China and India.
15 Actually some other countries show imbalances similar to the Chinese ones, regarding infant mortality rates by sex: for example, in India it is 7% higher for girls than for boys, in Pakistan it is 5% higher, in Bangladesh 3%. To make a comparison with countries which have similar levels of social development, for instance Muslim countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Mauritania, the mortality of males in the first 5 years exceeds that of their female peers by certain percentage points, according to the norm commonly observed in the other countries of the world.
16 In China (but also in other Asiatic countries, such as Taiwan and South Korea), the absence of a male heir means the extinction of the family and the worship of ancestors. According to the Hindu religion, it is the condemnation of parents to wander forever, as tradition instructs the male child in the funeral rites at the time of their death. In India as in China, a daughter is just “of passage” in the parental home: when she will marry, she will leave her parents’ home and start to dedicate herself entirely to her “new” family and to her husband and from that moment on she will no longer have anything to do with her parents. In the Chinese countryside, it is a fact that we need to raise a child “to prepare for old age”, since there is no pension. “Breeding a daughter” says a Chinese saying, “is how to cultivate the field of another”, while for Indians it is tantamount to “watering the garden of the nearby” (Attanè, 2006).
17 Infant mortality is defined and measured as the probability of dying between birth and exact age 1. It is expressed as deaths per 1,000 births.
18 Forecasts for infant mortality rates are the same for every scenario elaborated by the United Nations, since the phenomenon (measured through the rate) doesn’t depend on the evolution of fertility.
19 Mortality under age 5 is defined and measured as the probability of dying between birth and exact age 5. It is expressed as deaths per 1,000 births.
20 Isabelle Attané wrote an article about the structural imbalances in China and other Asiatic countries in Le Monde Diplomatique in july 2006. She concludes her article invoking the images of social collapse, citing the Lebanese Amin Maalouf’s novel of 1992 “The First Century After Beatrice”: “If tomorrow men and women could, by a simple way, decide the sex of these children, certain peoples would only choose boys. They would stop reproducing and, soon, disappear. Today a social flaw, the culture of the male will become a group suicide,” that what will happen will be an “autogenocide of misogynistic populations”.

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