“…Without compulsion, Taiwan has gone beyond the famous one-child policy enforced on the Chinese mainland’s main ethnic Han community since 1978. It is put down to the usual syndrome of education, careers, financial pressures, housing problems and childcare costs found in many affluent societies…”
REMEMBER the Yellow Peril? Older people will recall the racial fears easily whipped up here by images of the vast crowds of east Asia and projections of their population increase overwhelming our sparsely settled outpost of British life.
As another year gets under way, though, it is many of the east Asians who feel threatened, as governments from Singapore to Tokyo contemplate falling fertility rates and shrinking populations, and urge their reluctant young – in the most delicate, culturally appropriate way, of course – to get together and procreate.
Last year the number of babies born in Taiwan was half that of 10 years ago, partly due to the inauspicious lunar year of the Tiger just about to end, but continuing a trend that will hasten the ageing and decline of the island’s population. Taiwan’s fertility rate, the average number of children born to its women in their lifetime, fell to 0.91 last year, far below the rate of 2.1 needed to sustain population size.
Without compulsion, Taiwan has gone beyond the famous one-child policy enforced on the Chinese mainland’s main ethnic Han community since 1978. It is put down to the usual syndrome of education, careers, financial pressures, housing problems and childcare costs found in many affluent societies.
Japan’s population shrank by a record 123,000 people last year, continuing the demographic slide that began four years back. From a peak of 128 million in 2006, the Japanese population will shrink to under 100 million by mid-century, by which time its over-65s will have grown from the present 25 per cent of population to about 40 per cent.
Registered marriages last year were the fewest since 1954, suggesting young Japanese don’t have starting a family much on their minds. Lack of full-time jobs, housing issues, and inflexibility about combining careers and motherhood keep many wedded to the single lifestyle.
In mainland China, population is still growing and will peak about 2030 at somewhere between 1.39 billion (a recent US Central Intelligence Agency projection) and 1.46 billion (projected by Tian Xueyuan, a former president of Beijing’s Institute of Population and Labor Economics).
Growth in labour supply is already tapering. As we have seen from strikes and worker suicides over the last year, young people are less and less willing to ”eat bitterness” and work in sweatshop factories for low wages. In five years’ time the number of people in the 16-to-60 working age bracket will start to fall. The over-60s will be a third of the population in 2020.
Then there is the still unclear effect of selective abortion and more recently, sperm manipulation, to ensure a baby is male. This is producing significant distortions in sex ratios of some Chinese provinces, and also in Taiwan, less so in Hong Kong where daughters are in favour as old-age insurance, but not much in Japan.
By 2025 the Chinese will be outnumbered by about 1.4 billion Indians, whose numbers will grow to about 1.7 billion mid-century. The Indian population profile is much younger, giving rise to expectations of an automatic ”demographic dividend” in a low aged-to-working age burden for the economy.
But as Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of the IT giant Infosys, wrote in the Hindustan Times recently, can the dividend be cashed? ”Over the next two decades India will have to work hard at equipping its hundreds of millions of young people with the skills they need to participate in the economy, with jobs to be productive in, and with social protections to sustain them in the long term,” he said.
India’s population growth is now moving to the more backward northern, central and eastern states from the better-educated west and south, where fertility rates have fallen steadily below the net reproduction level. By 2025 the average age in India’s south and west will be 34, compared with 26 in these high-birth-rate states. A high percentage of young working age people can turn out to be an economic and social disaster, not a dividend, if jobs and opportunities are not there.
In a more modest way, Australians and Americans are keeping their end up in baby production, with fertility rates close to two children per woman, and high immigration rates. By mid-century we are likely to see 36 million people in Australia (from the present 22.5 million) and 439 million in the US (from 310 million).
But back to east Asia. In mainland China, it has long been a case of officialdom invading the bedroom and even the womb to stop babies.
In Singapore and Taiwan, it is almost a case of bureaucrats sitting at the bed-head urging exhausted working couples to get it together.
This week Taiwan’s President, Ma Ying-jeou, ordered ”national security level” countermeasures to address the falling birth numbers. His planners are preparing to throw
$1.3 billion a year in birth incentives and childcare subsidies. Government media units have devised ads showing couples looking at a baby photo then disappearing under the quilt. A contest for a pro-birth slogan recently produced the winner: ”Children – our best heirloom”.
In Singapore the government has been running a matchmaking service for several years, especially trying to get the island republic’s more nerdish graduates together, with events like ”Love is in the Aisles” in the local supermarkets of the French-owned Carrefour chain.
Maybe this year will see a turnaround. On February 3 we enter the Year of the Rabbit.