China’s working-age population is now declining. As labor becomes scarcer, the business community will either take on the challenge of moving to a higher-wage, more capital-intensive economy … or lobby hard for immigration. (source)
We like to compare ourselves with others, often seeing them as an alter ego who had gone to the right university, found the right job, or married the right person.
The same principle applies to countries. For a long time, many believed that if their country had done whatever the United States had done, they too would be powerful and prosperous. Today, this role of “Big Other” is increasingly being assigned to China.
An example is a recent article about “Chinese eugenics”:
China has been running the world’s largest and most successful eugenics program for more than thirty years, driving China’s ever-faster rise as the global superpower.
I worry that this poses some existential threat to Western civilization. Yet the most likely result is that America and Europe linger around a few hundred more years as also-rans on the world-historical stage, nursing our anti-hereditarian political correctness to the bitter end. (Miller, 2013)
The author, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, sees this eugenics program in the one-child policy, which serves “partly to curtail China’s population explosion, but also to reduce dysgenic fertility among rural peasants,” presumably because the best and the brightest migrate to the cities. Furthermore, to the extent that the best and the brightest are wealthier, they’re also better able to pay the fine for having a second child.
But Miller overlooks the weaker enforcement of this policy in rural areas. If the first-born in a farming family is a girl, they’re allowed to have another child. This might be why the fertility rate is higher in China’s rural areas, although it’s questionable whether the one-child policy has much effect at all. The fertility rate is actually higher in China (1.55) than in Taiwan (1.06) or Singapore (1.2), neither of which tries to limit family size.
Miller is on firmer ground when discussing the 1995 “Eugenic Law”:
With the 1995 Maternal and Infant Health Law (known as the Eugenic Law until Western opposition forced a name change), China forbade people carrying heritable mental or physical disorders from marrying, and promoted mass prenatal ultrasound testing for birth defects. (Miller, 2013)
As he notes further on, the word “eugenic” corresponds here to the Chinese term yousheng, literally “good birth.” The idea here, however, is not to create a new superhuman, but rather to maintain the current quality of the gene pool. A better English translation would be “anti-dysgenic.”
This idea is not specific to China. It was, in fact, widespread in the Western world until a little over thirty years ago, as seen in a widely used undergrad textbook from the 1970s:
Perhaps it is not unreasonable to assume that a person with a good record of achievement in certain areas of human endeavor has on the average a more desirable gene combination than a person whose achievements are less spectacular. In our present society, the superior person is punished by the government in numerous ways, by taxes and otherwise, which make it more difficult for him to raise a large family. Why, for instance, should tax exemption for children be a fixed sum rather than a percentage of earned income? Why should tuition in school be based, in large part, on the ability of the father to pay rather than inversely on the achievement of the student? Innumerable administrative rules and laws of the government discriminate inadvertently against the most gifted members of the community. (Mayr, 1970, pp. 408-409)
An analogy can be made here with the current view that East Asian societies are “ultranationalistic”—a view seldom expressed a half-century ago when national sentiment was thought to be normal and even healthy. Since then, they haven’t diverged from us. We’ve diverged from them. Remember, we observe other human societies from a moving frame of reference, and this perspective creates the illusion that some societies are becoming more extreme, more religious, or more xenophobic.
In reality, China has no eugenics program. It has a population program that may have anti-dysgenic effects. Moreover, a truly anti-dysgenic program would apply to everyone, yet the one-child policy is applied only in part to peasants and not at all to non-Han Chinese.
The best and the brightest?
And then there’s immigration. In official discourse, China carefully screens its newcomers, letting in only the best and the brightest (Pieke, 2012). In reality, most immigrants enter the country illegally or on visitor visas to fill low-paying jobs:
In the short to medium term, the rise of China as a major immigration country is mostly predicated on the continued growth of its economy and its gradual transition to an urban, service-based economy. The role, and especially the timing, of demographic factors is less clear. In 2003, for the first time China began to experience shortages of internal migrant labor. There are only few people left in rural China younger than 30 years-the cohort most predisposed to out-migration-who still work in agriculture. (Pieke, 2012, p. 41)
The looming scarcity of labor could lead to higher wages and greater reliance on automation and robotization. Or it could lead to a growing influx of cheaply paid immigrant labor. To date, China seems to be moving down the second path:
In contrast to the influx of skilled foreigners stands the recent arrival of a large number of Southeast Asian workers, mainly Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian, who have been “smuggled” into the Pearl River Delta to take low pay work and this is believed helpful to alleviate the pressure of shortage of labour force in the region. (Zhu & Price, 2012, p. 8)
As usual, the term “labor shortage” needs qualifying. There is only a shortage of people who will work for less than the going market rate:
“They are hard workers and obedient employees,” Zeng Xiangbiao, a shoe factory owner in Dongguan, told a Chinese reporter in a familiar refrain on immigrant labor. He has more than 200 workers from Cambodia and Laos, a quarter of his workforce. “They could work 15 to 16 hours a day and work for a month without any break. Few of the domestic workers, especially those born in the 1980s and after, could take this.” (Epstein, 2010)
There has also been an influx of sub-Saharan Africans, who number an estimated 200,000 in Guangzhou alone, in addition to a growing presence in Hong Kong, Macao, Yiwu, Shanghai, and Beijing (Bodomo, 2012; Li etal., 2007). Most come to China as immigrants, and not as transients:
A distinctive feature of Africans in China, which differentiates them from other foreign nationals, is their expressed intention to settle in China for a long period […] Most Africans are actually seeking a life in China if the local situation permits them to remain. Moreover, a significant part of African immigrants are relatively poor when they arrive at China. (Zhu & Price, 2012, p. 4)
The African influx will probably continue to “happen” through irregular means. Eventually, it will be regularized as a fait accompli. Indeed, some are already arguing that such immigration must be legally recognized in order to manage it better:
The failure to manage the African immigration wave is indicated by the absence of a concerted system of national laws and regulations on the legal protection of foreigners’ basic rights and interests, and also by the non-recognition of minimal social rights to immigrants in China. (Zhu & Price, 2012, p. 19)
For Geoffrey Miller, China acts with a view to the longer term, especially when deciding the future of its population, i.e., the basis of its society and economy. In contrast, the West acts “stupidly and shortsightedly.”
The real picture is less flattering to the Chinese and is, in fact, depressingly familiar. As in the West, population policy is dominated by short and medium term needs, even though today’s decisions have long-term consequences that will be hard to reverse.
Like its Western counterparts, the Chinese business community feels entitled to cheap labor and will lobby hard to preserve this “right” as the pool of homegrown labor shrinks. Although the average Chinese worker would gain from higher wages and a more capital-intensive economy, such a change would be costly for existing businesses, many of which would lose market share or go bankrupt. A tempting solution will be to keep wages low by letting in people who will work at those wages.
And keeping such people out will be diplomatically difficult. Their home countries are usually the same ones that increasingly supply China with food and valuable raw materials. Fear of economic reprisals will force policy-makers to treat this issue with kid gloves.
Unlike its Western counterparts, however, the Chinese business community is less effective at lobbying the upper echelons of the Chinese state. These two worlds are distinct with little overlap. State officials move up through the ranks of the Communist Party, and there is none of the to and fro of businessmen running for public office and later retiring to the private sector as consultants. Businessmen do try to get their way through bribery, but such behavior is punished more harshly than it is in the West, as seen in the government’s reaction to the infant formula scandal of 2008:
[…] they quickly launched a national police investigation which led to a series of arrests and uncovered evidence that this widespread system of food adulteration had been protected by bribe-taking government officials. Long prison sentences were freely handed out and a couple of the guiltiest culprits were eventually tried and executed for their role, measures that gradually assuaged popular anger. Indeed, the former head of the Chinese FDA had been executed for corruption in late 2007 under similar circumstances. (Unz, 2012)
It is thus easier in China to make population policy with a view to long-term national goals. But will this actually be the case? Only time will tell …
Bodomo, A. (2012). Africans in China: A Sociological Study and Its Implications on Africa-China Relations, Cambria Press.
Epstein, G. (2010). China’s immigration problem, July 19, Forbes.comhttp://www.forbes.com/forbes/2010/0719/opinions-china-immigration-illegal-aliens-heads-up.html
Li, Z, D. Xue, M. Lyons, A. Brown. (2007). Ethnic Enclave of Transnational Migrants in Guangzhou: A Case Study of Xiaobei http://asiandrivers.open.ac.uk/lyons%20brown%20zhigang%20li%20ethnic%20enclaves%20china%20(2).pdf
Mayr, E. (1970). Populations, Species, and Evolution, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.)
Miller, G. (2013). Chinese eugenics, 2013 : What *should* we be worried about? Edgehttp://www.edge.org/response-detail/23838
Pieke, F.N. (2012). Immigrant China, Modern China, 38, 40-77.
Unz, R. (2012). Chinese Melamine and American Vioxx: A Comparison, The American Conservative, April 17 http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/chinese-melamine-and-american-vioxx-a-comparison/
Zhu, G., & R. Price (2012). Chinese Immigration Law and Policy: A Case of ‘Change Your Direction or End Up Where You are Heading’? Columbia Journal of Asian Law, forthcoming.http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2088683