Monday, May 07, 2007

Fertility in China

Claus mailed me this morning with a link to this article from the BBC:

China's top family planning body has warned of a "population rebound" as couples flout one child policy rules. The widening wealth gap could lead to a rise in birth rates, Zhang Weiqing, from the National Population and Family Planning Commission, told state media. Newly rich couples can afford to pay fines to have more than one child, while rural couples are marrying earlier, he told Xinhua news agency.

As Claus indicated to me in his mail all of this is something of an oversimplification:

Of course China is a damn difficult case to get a hold on and also instead of talking about population growth we should at least also talk ageing too. In terms of fertility what are we looking at? The general consensus says that TFR often is underreported ( i.e. the recent consensus from 01-05) produced an average of about 1.3. But then again, the government figure of 1.8 is clearly too high. So we are perhaps looking at an overall TFR (over a year period 1997-2007) at about 1.4-1.6.

Now, in China I would expect the rural-urban division to be very important. And really the BBC focus on 'newly rich' couples does not seem be representative of the general trend although of course it is difficult to say for sure. This is of course also where overpopulation comes in since when we have rapid urbanization this will become an issue, especially in China although of course the cranes are working fast to counter this. Now, the TFR estimates of urban TFR are very low indeed and this begs the question, just how important is the following observation in the general picture ...

In fact, last month, a survey by the National Population and Family Planning Commission found that the number of rich people and celebrities having more than one child was on a rapid increase, and nearly 10% of people in this category had three children.



In fact I had a post a couple of months back about the re-affirmation of the one child policy in China which struck me as being a fairly important and significant development, especially in the light of what we now understand about the impact of sustained low fertility on the shape of the population pyramid.

As Claus says the rural-urban division seems to be important here, but really if the rural areas still have somewhat higher fertility at the present time then this can only be expected to drop as rural China develops and a more systematic form of "law and order" arrives. The key thing about China I think (as I say in the previous post) is the fact that they have just re-asserted the one child policy, in other words there is a legal framework in which it is going to be difficult for urban couples to raise their fertility to any significant extent as incomes and possibilities rise.

Some reflection of this underlying reality can be seen from the content of this paper presented at PAA2007, the abstract of which I reproduce below:

This paper presents preliminary results from a field survey on fertility preference and behavior among six counties in one of the most dynamic regions of China (Jiangsu province) with one of the lowest fertility levels (TFR at 1.0). The survey, to be completed in January 2007, will be the first of a longitudinal study planned for this research site. This paper will be the first to report on a new study designed to understand below-replacement fertility in the context of economic and social globalization and political intervention. Some results from the study will have special relevance for China, given its unique government intervention and control in reproduction, but many of the results should have broad implications for understanding global low fertility, with China being one of the most dynamic players in the new wave of globalization.

The paper suggests that the impact of the one child policy in some provinces has been so dramatic on young urban couples that even some official 'relaxation' is being contemplated. As the authors say:


With over a fifth of the world’s population, China is a newcomer but an important one in the emerging global regime of below replacement fertility. In the last decade of the twentieth century, China’s national fertility has firmly dropped to the below replacement level. China’s most recent national census obtained a national fertility level of 1.22 children per woman in the year 2000. With adjustment of underreporting, fertility level measured by the total fertility rate (TFR) is believed to be around 1.5 (Cai 2005; Guo and Chen 2007; Retherford et al. 2005; Zhang and Zhao 2006). In China’s more developed regions, fertility has been even lower for more than a decade, barely above the one child per couple level. China, however, is often conspicuously missing in the literature on below replacement fertility.


As the researchers also indicate, Jiangsu province is a very interesting case due to the long duration (nearly two and half decades) of a province-wide one-child policy there. This means that children from the "one-child-per-family" generation are now approaching reproductive age and thus the question of finding some sort of exit strategy from "population meltdown" starts to be posed:

We chose Jiangsu not only for its economy, to study the role of globalization, but also for its demography -- its extremely low fertility and unique fertility policy -- to study the role of policy intervention. Jiangsu is one of only two provinces (along with Sichuan province) that implemented a province-wide one-child policy for the past two and half decades, requiring not only urban but also rural couples to have only one child. Its recorded fertility level from China's 2000 census is also among the very lowest: a TFR of 1.0. Jiangsu province's strict birth control policy also contains a benign side for couples in this province. As a measure of policy transition to phase out the one-child policy after one generation, provincial birth control regulations allow newly married couples to have two children if one of the marriage partners is a single child her or himself in rural areas and if both marriage partners are single child in urban areas. With two and half decades of the one-child policy, couples qualifying for having two children are now entering their marriage and childbearing age. These couples are our main study targets.

Obviously and by the very nature of the lengthy timescale across which demographic processes work the results of this interesting piece of research won't really be available for many years to come. In the meantime the rather more pressing question of whether all of this is not a case of far too little far too late really does present itself. The Chinese still seem obsessed with the SIZE of their population and not with its structure, and this seems to me to be a big mistake, and one of global proportions given its very rapid economic growth rate (interestingly China's economy seems to have accelerated slightly rather than slowing of late). The big, and much needed, sea change in Chinese thinking will only come when people inside the decision making process there start to realise that it isn't so much size that matters as population structure, as this very useful and interesting power point presentation on China's demographic structure (thanks Claus) makes only too clear.

Finally returning to Claus's last point (and the BBC's main one) the "rich" are by definition only a small proportion of the total population, and if only 10% of this group have extra children it is clear that this in itself will not have much in the way of a statistical impact on overall fertility in China.

20 comments:

S.M. Stirling said...

Taiwan has a TFR of 1.12. Hong Kong is about 1, and Singapore about 0.98

The fact of the matter is that Chinese people, for the most part, don't _want_ larger families.

The one-child policy may have made the fall in fertility steeper, but it's now irrelevant.

S.M. Stirling said...

Incidentally, the CIA World Factbook has some interesting new figures for 2007.

It still puts China at 1.75, rather than the official 1.2.

However, there are some other changes. Iran has gone from 1.8 to 1.71, Tunisia to 1.73, Turkey to 1.89, and Algeria to 1.86

I think this bears out my contention that once the Middle Eastern countries started rapid fertility reduction, they'd keep going and eventually fertility rates on both sides of the Mediterranean would even out.

The eventual plateau will be close to current Spanish, Italian and Balkan rates.

Scott said...

One aspect of China's fertility policy that will have unpredictable social consequences sometime in the near(next twenty or so years) future is the gender imbalance that has resulted from the combination of the official one child policy and the well documented preference of Chinese couples for having a boy rather than a girl.
Also, it just struck me that the gender imbalance will have an impact on future fertility rates as there will be a meaningful proportion of the Chinese population that will be unable to reproduce (i.e. all of those males that can't find a wife).

S.M. Stirling said...

"Also, it just struck me that the gender imbalance will have an impact on future fertility rates as there will be a meaningful proportion of the Chinese population that will be unable to reproduce (i.e. all of those males that can't find a wife)."

-- correct. That will drive the Crude Birth Rate down below the level the TFR would otherwise produce.

Which will bring on actual population decline faster, will make the fall more rapid, and will also increase the rate at which the median age increases.

Jill said...

Hi, I've read this blog almost since its inception but have never commented. I thought however, this anecdote might be relevant. I recently visited China with my family. My husband and I took our 3 children to Bejing, Shanghai, and Hainan Island. It was at times surreal. The kids were treated like rock stars. They are 18 months 2 1/2 and 5. We started in Bejing and made the mistake of going to the Forbidden City on a weekend. I think many visitors took more pictures and video of us than the place they were touring. Some followed us the entire time we were there, filming. When we stopped to give the kids a snack in what we thought was an out of the way area people came up and formed a semi-circle around us and watched us eat. There were dozens. It was like feeding time at the zoo. Everyone was friendly, but clearly fascinated by the American kids. They would hold up three fingures, gesture in a way that was questioning whether they were all ours. When we indicated that they were, we usually got a thumbs up.

Which brings up an interesting point about boy preference. The men were clearly more excited about the prospect of three kids than the women. Our oldest and youngest are both boys. My husband was met with much approval from the men in China.

There were a lot of advertisements in Bejing for new housing developments. Interestingly, they portrayed the "ideal family" living in their new house as a mom, dad, and daughter. This held true of many other ads as well.

The scrutiny in Shangai was much less than Bejing. There were still stares and requests for pictures but no one followed us with a video camera.

There seemed to be conspicuously few children around both Bejing and Shanghai. I do think there is something to the argument that low fertility can be a societal trap. Like I said, the men seemed enthusiastic about the idea of three kids. The women were interested in the kids and wanted to look at them, but I got many rueful- wow, your a brave girl, but better you than me - looks. When women feel that way, fertility rates aren't going up any time soon.

S.M. Stirling said...

Urban Chinese have virtually stopped reproducing -- they're less fertile than their equivalents in Japan or Spain.

I suspect that when the majority is urban, the overall TFR may hit lows not yet seen in any large country.

Aslak said...

The CIA World Factbook is not reliable, at least when it comes to TFR. For instance, according to the CIA the TFR in the Scandinavian countries are 1.66 in Sweden, 1.74 in Denmark and 1.78 in Norway. The actual figures are 1.9 in Norway and 1.85 in Denmark and Sweden.
I suspect their numbers are based on projections.

Aslak said...

Actually, on second thought, it's not just TFR. The Factbook is unreliable when it comes to all demographic data. It may give you an approximate idea of where things stand but it can't be relied upon for figuring out trends and exact data.

S.M. Stirling said...

"The CIA World Factbook is not reliable, at least when it comes to TFR."

-- it's more reliable than the governments concerned, generally speaking. They have axes to grind and faking data is quite common.

Edward Hugh said...

"The CIA World Factbook is not reliable, at least when it comes to TFR."

Sterling, I tend to concur with Aslak on this one (as I think we have discussed before). CIA published data tends to be at variance with other sources (the Washington based Population Reference Bureau for eg), and while I have no difficulty at all accepting that one set of data may be better than another (whichever way round it goes) for all sorts of reasons I feel that before accepting out of consensus data it would be nice to have some sort of methodological explanation for the discrepancy. This we do not seem to have.

In principle the quality of fertility data from a country probably matches quite well with the quality of other statistics produced in that country, so I would tend to give quite a high valuation to Scandinavian and US data (eg), and a much lower one to data from Greece, China and Nigeria.

Which is why the CIA discrepancy with Scandinavia seems so odd.

Again, I think Aslak is right, in that the CIA factbook material is useful as a general orientation (as to magnitude and direction of changes, I tend to cite their median age numbers since they are a handy and accessible source, and we are only talking about very rule of thumb issues here) but it is not necessarily the most accurate data available.

At the end of the day the TFR is itself only a very rough guide to real fertility because of all the timing issues involved in the postponement process, and what we really need in each case are completed cohort fertility numbers, but since these only become available post hoc (ie after the proverbial horse has already bolted and it is too late to close the blasted gate) they are really of very little use in determining shorter term trends (and hence to some extent policy) as they are actually happening.

Which takes us back nicely to your numbers on three of the Tigers. Again the CIA figure is somewhat below other published data (which is normally in the 1.2 TFR range), but this really doesn't seem to matter much given the fact that the TFR reading is itself so hard to interpret. We really have no idea at all what the long term completed CFRs are going to be for any of these countries (other than that they are significantly below replacement) once the postponement process bottoms out (at an average first birth age of 31?,32?....).


"I suspect that when the majority is urban, the overall TFR may hit lows not yet seen in any large country."

I'm inclined to agree with this, although it is important to recognise that we are talking here about tfr READINGS (rather like those red dials in submarines), and we could even see readings in India which go below those which will be set by China. Everything depends on the pace of the postponement process. But if, as I suspect, this is more rapid than anything previously seen (and it is the unprecedented rates of economic growth we are seeing in these countries which is leading me to this conclusion) then this rapidity will be reflected in a very deep "birth dearth" which will show up in the registered TFRs.

Of course all of this begs the question of just why postponement occurs, and occurs so systematically across countries. Claus and I tend to put the emphasis on economic factors - like education, labour market preparation and entry conditions, human capital formation. etc - but these are clearly not the only factors in play. Social ones are also important, and mechanisms like desired number of children etc undoubtedly play a part in the whole feedback process.

"The fact of the matter is that Chinese people, for the most part, don't _want_ larger families."

Quite. But before they did. So what has changed? This is where I think economic elements and "modernity" related processes (the second demographic transition idea) etc need to be better understood.

"The one-child policy may have made the fall in fertility steeper, but it's now irrelevant."

Again Sterling, I accept the thrust of your point, its the detail that irks me a bit.

If pro natalist policies can make a difference in countries like Sweden and France, why couldn't they work in China? At least this would be working towards trying to ease the coming crunch. As it is policy is working towards trying to stop people having children. This is madness, and institutions like the EU, the US government, the IMF, the World Bank etc should be saying this, and loudly.

As I keep saying, due to the long term economic importance of China (which is of course related to its size) we are all going to get the backdraft here, so we all have an interest. If China becomes economically unstable this will pass through to the global economy, and please do remember there is India coming right behind.

Finally, I would just like to draw attention to the fact that the paper on Chinese fertility I link to at the end of the post has the great merit that it tries to address Chinese fertility as part of a global trend. This is such a breath of fresh air in a context where so many people seem to have been trying to play politics with this situation (by making it a kind of EU vs US football match).

The reality is that there is a very strong global trend, and this is what we need to address. Then there are outliers like France and the US who approach replacement fertility levels, and we need to ask in each of these cases why this is so we can see what is to be learned.

Edward Hugh said...

"I've read this blog almost since its inception but have never commented."

Hi Jill.

"I thought however, this anecdote might be relevant."

Thanks for the insight into one aspect of contemporary China. The Chinese may not be having too many children but clearly they are fascinated by them, and it is an issue somewhere in everyone's minds.

The big question is probably not the attitude of the older Chinese to children, but rather how the younger generation, and especially younger women, see the issue. Will those who have grown up in a one child family environment feel that with one child they have enough? These are the social processes we still don't understand enough about.

Hi Scott

"One aspect of China's fertility policy that will have unpredictable social consequences sometime in the near(next twenty or so years) future is the gender imbalance"

I absolutely agree, this only adds to the complications. I also agree that the whole situation is unpredicatable, in the sense that we really don't have any idea how this will all work itself out.

Again it is China's size that seems to make all this so important, since it is difficult to see how they can make up the shortfall.

In earlier times (ancient Rome for eg), this sort of imbalance could be corrected by conquest, massacre or enslavement of rival males, and seizure of women. In the modern world this kind of formula would seem to be excluded (I hope).

Colin Reid said...

One aspect of Chinese fertility policy that strikes me as odd is that restrictions are generally tighter in the city than in the countryside, but the government has been focusing on the cities for its economic growth. (Although as people have suggested, fertility in the cities may be naturally low.) The upshot is that the rush to the eastern cities is already producing one of the largest migratory flows in human history, but Chinese cities will soon need large extra inflows from the countryside just to maintain existing levels of urbanisation. In the other direction, there are the ongoing efforts to Hanify the western frontier, though perhaps this is resulting more in Han-dominated cities surrounded by non-Han countryside given where the new jobs are going to be. Then there's the excess males problem, and we have to ask what all these boys will do when they grow up and can't find wives. Migration in search of them would be at least part of the answer I think (mass importation of brides Taiwan-style isn't going to be an option for most, given Chinese demand would soon exhaust any supply).


All this put together means that China is being set up for huge amounts of population churn. What effects might this have on Chinese society?

S.M. Stirling said...

"If pro natalist policies can make a difference in countries like Sweden and France, why couldn't they work in China?"

-- expense.

Sweden and France have spent a great deal of money to get a very modest increase in TFR, and as soon as the effort is cut back the TFR falls again, as happened in Sweden in the 1990's.

If the Chinese government's 1-child policy was pushing with the grain, a pro-natalist one is pushing _against_ it.

(And I suspect that a good deal of the money in France and Sweden has disproporionately gone to delay the decline in fertility of immigrants from places with higher TFR's, rather than increasing native fertility. Maghrebi fertility is well below replacement level in Algeria and Tunisia, but seems to be a big higher in France. This of course doesn't apply to China.)

China, even given the most optimistic possible economic scenarios, cannot afford to spend anything like the amounts per-capita that a rich first-world country can do.

Taiwan and Singapore have been trying pro-natalist policies, and failing badly -- and they're much, much more affluent than China is going to be in the next generation.

Furthermore, the very rapid fall in Chinese TFR's from quite high levels -- levels that Europe hasn't seen in mored than a century, if ever -- means that the aging process will be correspondingly abrupt. Those 700 million adults are going to hit like a tidal-wave as they turn 60.

That will further drain the Chinese government's resources. There won't be any money to spare.

Randy said...

Stirling:

"(And I suspect that a good deal of the money in France and Sweden has disproporionately gone to delay the decline in fertility of immigrants from places with higher TFR's, rather than increasing native fertility. Maghrebi fertility is well below replacement level in Algeria and Tunisia, but seems to be a big higher in France. This of course doesn't apply to China.)"

Not necessarily. Going by the various statistics from INED, INSEE, and elsewhere cited by the very complete French Wikipedia article on French demographic trends

http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/D%C3%A9mographie_de_la_France

there's not an especially strong correlation between large populations of immigrant origin and high TFRs--Ile-de-France has a high TFR, yes, but so do Brittany and the Pays de Loire. There's also a strong positive fertility effect on women of immigrqant background who come from countries with ultra-low fertility rates--French of Italian and Spanish origin have a TFR closer to the French average than to that of their homeland.

All this seems to suggest that French women, like American women, seem to live in an environment that favours relatively high levels of completed fertility on the part of women, including native-born women with high standards of education and income. I'm curious about the extent to which social attitudes have changed in Taiwan and Singapore as opposed to the economic substructures--superstructure counts, too.

S.M. Stirling said...

"but Chinese cities will soon need large extra inflows from the countryside just to maintain existing levels of urbanisation."

-- this is similar to the historic situation in England, where London had a death rate nearly twice its birth-rate, and needed something like 10% of the annual natural increase in the country as in-migrants just to prevent a decline in population.

S.M. Stirling said...

On postponment: I suspect that when you put off having children until you're 30, it's all too likely to be one of those things you're never going to get around to really doing.

Just for starters, female fertility starts dropping very substantially more than a decade before menopause.

That's why delaying marriage was so effective at driving down TFR's before the industrial period, when it was the principle means of birth control in Western Europe.

If a woman rules out reproduction in the 20-30 period, having any childen at all becomes very problematic and having more than one even more so.

When there's a desired "target" number of children, the sensible way to go about it is to have them early and then get sterilized.

When governments are considering pronatalist measures, they should encourage fairly early childbearing.

Edward Hugh said...

"When governments are considering pronatalist measures, they should encourage fairly early childbearing."

This was Wolfgang Lutz's initial idea, but I doubt the realism of it. Obviously I agree with you about the important impact on fertility which comes from the timing decision, but since I think that one big part of the underlying dynamic towards later childbirth comes from the shift from the industrial to the information age (and the education and human capital needs associated with it) I think its is hard to put the clock back here.

Given that - as the China paper highlights - we are talking about a global trend, the postponement decision would hardly seem to be a mere fad, and working against it would seem to be like trying to drain the ocean with a teaspoon.

The only two major developed countries who have been able to hold out and maintain something like replacement level fertility are France and the US, and in each case the reasons are obviously rather different, and this despite the fact that in each case there have been postponement processes (although in neither case
are these processes by any means done).

As I indicated in an earlier post on Sweden, timing of the second child after having the first would seem to be important, and Swedish policy would seem to have had some success in bring fertility back up a bit due to its "speed bonus" component. So targeting resources towards financial incentives and back-up support which make it easier for mums to have multiple children in rapid succession would seem to be an interesting idea regardless of the age at which they have them.

Interestingly, I think a case could be made out for the idea that the initial drop in US fertility around the 1970s was partly produced by a postponement process among US women of European descent and before the Latinos started arriving in significant numbers. Later the figure ticked up again due to the DUAL effect of Latino arrival AND those who had postponed finally starting to have the children at later ages.

"Just for starters, female fertility starts dropping very substantially more than a decade before menopause."

Again I agree, that this has been an important factor in the failure of many women to achieve desired family size I mean. Sitting here in Spain I only have to glance at the huge demand for internationally adopted children to become aware that there are one hell of a lot of frustrated would-be mums out there.

But maybe technological change can help here. As chance would have it, Marcelo has a post on precisely this topic in the works right now, and it should be up by the end of next week, so maybe that would be a good moment to talk about this aspect.

"When there's a desired "target" number of children, the sensible way to go about it is to have them early and then get sterilized."

Assuming that is that the "target" number hasn't dropped to 1. Think China, which is after all what this post is about.

S.M. Stirling said...

"So targeting resources towards financial incentives and back-up support which make it easier for mums to have multiple children in rapid succession would seem to be an interesting idea regardless of the age at which they have them."

-- yeah.

The obvious course would simply be to make _not_ having children very expensive, to an extent which would seriously impact lifetime income.

Some sort of really savage difference in the tax burden between people who have children and those who don't, for example, on the basis that the parents are already paying in time and opportunity costs by performing an essential service to socieyt.

Or that combined with taking away all sorts of benefits (educational ones, for instance) from the childless to encourage early reproduction.

Exempt those with 3 or more children from most taxes; pile the burdens on the childless sky-high. And make it easy and cheap for young married couples with at least one child to get higher education, to get them started.

Make the gap big enough, and you'll reach the right incentive structure at _some_ point, when you've imposed enough costs to counterbalance the disincentives.

Randy said...

Stirling:

"Make the gap big enough, and you'll reach the right incentive structure at _some_ point, when you've imposed enough costs to counterbalance the disincentives."

At some point it may be reached, but it's difficult to imagine how other factors would not intervene if a country's fiscal and legal arrangements came to discriminate so severely against the large majority of a country's population.

Communist Romania's success in keeping TFRs high was enabled only by the intrusive mechanisms of the Ceaucescu dictatorship. It's not a coincidence that one of the first things the Romanian government did after his execution was legalize abortion. Leaving aside issues like infertile individuals, same-sex couples, and the like, heavily coercive population policies just aren't compatible with democratic governance.

surrogate said...

I agree with aslak. The CIA World Factbook is not reliable and correct.