Contradiction in Population Choices: India and China

In a recent post, I had argued that welfare states are prone to contradictions, because it has to be subject to the rules of capitalism which require labor commodification and social protection simultaneously, which per Claus Offe, is inherently contradictory (Liu 2015). But one does not need to restrict such analysis to the welfare state, but can extend the contradiction to population policy as well. The two biggest populations in the world are India and China, and they are both now complaining about the male surplus. The male surplus is the disproportionate ratio between men and women at any given birth cohort (usually 120 boys for 100 girls, while global average is closer to 105 boys for 100 girls). Some research has suggested that Chinese men are becoming more violent as the gender ratio becomes more skewed toward males (Winkler 2014), and Indian girls living in strongly skewed regions are more likely to experience early marriage and forced sex (Trent et al. 2012).

The social effects of a skewed gender ratio is of particular interests for sociologists and gender studies scholars, and should be further researched. However, in this post I am very much interested in the relationship between demographic development and capitalist development. The essence of capitalism is economic growth, and this has mostly been correlated with a continuously growing population. Western capitalists and scholars have promoted the accession of China and India into the global community because these two countries had a very young and vast labor force that was eager to out-compete their western counterparts on price. Especially China has transformed from a largely rural to a largely urban society based on manufacturing development. India has relied more heavily on services to grow, and their urbanization and global trade growth has been slower than in China, but development figures point in a similar direction as China.

It is not surprising that western corporations and investors were eager to exploit this demographic bounty over the last few decades. But the large cohort of young workers have been the essence of this inflow of investment capital. But while all of this development was happening, women were pulled into the labor force in very great numbers (declining infant mortality rates certainly helped in that), which is more acutely the case in China where women had long ago been engaged in formal employment, as befits a communist system. Women in the labor force results in more barriers to child-bearing resulting in a declining birth rate, which is of course more acute in societies where public child care provision is poor. Right when the Opening Reforms were implemented, the government imposed the one-child policy, fearing at that time overpopulation rather than a lack of population. India imposed no such policy, but the secular decline of birth rates in India indicates that women are becoming more educated and contraceptives are more available than previously.

Urbanization is a third contributing factor to a declining birth rate. As people have more income as they work city jobs, they also tend to spend more money on their children’s education and other forms of expensive entertainment. Children are now primarily an economic liability to parents for much longer than previously (and the author of this post can confirm this out of personal experience). This is a dramatic reversal from the old days, when most people were farmers and regarded their children as an asset. The more hands worked the field the more likely they were to survive. Farmers were not buying their children toys, but made sure to exploit their labor for family survival. A more expensive lifestyle with more expensive children also favors people’s choice toward fewer children.

So there we have multiple factors (female education/work, government one-child policy and urbanization) that explain the declining birth rate, and that produces a very peculiar choice model for couples contemplating what gender their children should have. This decision has been strangely made possible by medical innovations, which allow parents to see the gender of the fetuses, and then make a decision on abortion or not. Traditional culture in both country favors boys, because they are expected to take care of their parents., so girls get aborted in significant numbers. One look at the Chinese and Indian population pyramid reveals that the male surplus is continuing to grow and getting worse.

The economic calculation is quite similar in both societies, but confusingly differs on one point: the bride price and the groom price. In Chinese society, there is a bride price, meaning that the husband and his family need to have saved up sufficient income to purchase a house or give some starting capital to the bride, and the couple uses that to, for example, start a business. In Indian society, there is a groom price, the so-called dowry, and it is the wife’s family which pays money to the groom’s family. Ironically, whether a bride price or a groom price is paid makes no difference to the parental preference for sons. The reason is that in both cases the traditions are patrilocal, which means that the wife has to vacate her parents’ house and move to the husband’s parents house, and later take care of them, when they are old, which automatically results in the “loss” of the daughter. The incentives for female infanticide are perhaps even stronger in Indian society, because dowry and the loss of the daughter are both negative factors for raising a daughter.

As I have said, the preference for boys and female infanticide is becoming more acute as the birth rate is declining. The resultant male surplus results in a further reduction in the birth rate, because women, not men, are the limiting factor for population growth. This is the fourth factor explaining a declining birth rate. It is no coincidence that the fertility rate is measured by the number of children for women. To illustrate this principle one should imagine a society consisting of one man and ten women, and another society with one woman and ten men, and calculate which society will grow faster. The fact that an Arabian prince with hundreds of concubines had fathered more than 800 children illustrates that women are the limiting factor for the birth rate. The many men in China and India, who see little prospect of finding a mate, clearly illustrates the possibility for a shrinking population.

So far neither Indian nor Chinese society are on a declining trajectory and that is because even faster than the fall of the birth rate is the aging of society resulting from an increase in the life expectancy. As people are getting older and living longer, the society won’t shrink as fast as would be the case if most people died at a young age. Technological, agricultural and medical progress are certainly tremendously helpful for many societies. But on the other hand, the growth in the old-age population does not resolve the crisis in capitalism, because any growth-oriented society relies on millions of young workers and consumers, who keep the system going. With the exception of the health care and retirement community industry, I can not imagine many other sectors of the economy which can expect huge growth rates amid an aging population.

A few decades onward, population aging itself can no longer halt the demographic decline, and societies will shrink quite quickly. In Japan, the population peaked in 2004 (127.8 million), then stagnated for a few years at that level, and then began to decline (127.3 million as of 2013). Many countries in Europe are facing a similar development, though they cushion their population decline with the intake of immigrants and refugees. Ironically, the growth of refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries of the world (mostly young people of primary working age) could turn out to be a demographic and economic boom for Europe.

For China and India, the population dividend is gradually exhausting itself, as they have to handle a growing old-age population with rising social security needs (families have become smaller and a less reliable source of old-age insurance). China has already seen the peak in the labor force, and has been declining in the last few years. Amid talks of an overheating economy, rising wage claims of restive workers, who no longer accept the oppressive low-wage model, and thereby put downward pressure on profits, Chinese leaders have to fend off allegations of corruption and mismanagement in the inevitably slower growing economy. Managing less growth is unavoidable, which lies partly in the aging and eventually shrinking population and declining fertility rate. In addition, investors will no longer be as patient with China, and seek to find other areas to sink their investments. For the Communist Party, however, less growth could mean an even more dissatisfied population, which may force them to increase their crackdowns on the population, as we have seen with the many prosecutions against human rights activists in the recent past.

India, on the other hand, still has room to grow. Its total labor force grew from 466 to 481 million between 2010 and 2013 (World Bank). Given that the population expanded by 46 million people in that same time period, labor force participation has barely budged and, in fact, even declined from 55 to 54% (World Bank). There are certainly more barriers to complete capitalist development in India than in China, but both countries will converge at some point in their development.

We have to go back to the original problem formulation and ask ourselves what the ultimate cause of the declining birth rate was in the first place: capitalist development. This cause is different than the other proximate causes that I have outlined earlier (women’s empowerment, one-child policy, urbanization and male surplus), because capitalist development is related to each of these policy solutions in some way, except the one child policy, which is a unique administrative fiat of the Chinese government. Rising affluence creates different choices for people, which prioritizes work and consumption over child-rearing. Outdated male-centric traditions themselves work to undermine the foundation for further population and economic growth.

Capitalism is such a contradictory system, because it produces unforeseen social results, which undermine the basis of its own continued existence. Population surplus favors capitalist investments in cheap labor, which drives up wages, which favors technological investments and labor-saving technology. Development and growing wealth, however, result in different social choices favoring fewer children, which undermines the basis of further development. Countries like Canada and the US, which have long invited more immigrants on a vast territorial space, can gloss over demographic problems given their popularity among immigrants all over the world. It is altogether a different story for India and China, which have only allowed few immigrants to enter, and if so under tight conditions. It is questionable whether even an open-border policy can reverse a demographic decline in China and India given that their combined population is already one-third of the total in the world, and a few million immigrants won’t tip the scales in terms of growth.

The concluding thought, however, takes the opposite tack: we know that a growing world population is quite harmful to the world given our resource scarcity and the negative effects of environmental degradation and climate change. The worship of population growth can only be justified under a framework of capitalist economic growth, which I think should rightly be questioned. My brother has argued that a growing world population is positive, because if there is more of us, then there will be more ideas that are circulated, and that has to drive innovation and progress. I certainly have access to a larger variety of people than even my parents and grandparents, whose social life were much more restricted to their personal friendship network. But I shall still ask: when is enough enough? When can we divorce population developments from the economic growth engine, which is bringing our planet ever closer to disaster?

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