Thursday, July 08, 2010

Imagine No Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, Nieces, or Nephews

The burden of China's one-child policy will fall upon those who need a strong extended family structure. And on successful people who would like to be able to do something to help their kin -- but simply do not have any. A society without uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, nephews -- without any extended families -- is difficult to imagine for most outsiders. Particularly those from tribal societies such as those in Central Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, etc.

The one child society is the opposite of the tribal society -- where wealth and trust reside within the clan and tribe, and all outsiders are mistrusted and reviled. In a one-child society, everyone is an outsider.
Thirty years ago this September, China began seriously pruning family trees of cousins — and simplifying kinship taxonomy in the process — through the mandatory enforcement of its so-called one-child policy (a misnomer because, among others, rural families and ethnic minorities are allowed to have more than a single kid). By becoming the only country in the world to make compulsory family planning a pillar of national identity, China hoped to prevent a Malthusian nightmare....

...With a current population of 1.3 billion people, China now boasts fertility rates of around 1.6 births per woman, well below the 2.1 replacement rate at which a population is maintained. But the country is also saddled with one of the planet's worst gender imbalances, largely a result of women aborting female fetuses due to a traditional preference for male offspring. Other countries such as India and South Korea also have skewed sex ratios, but the pressure to bear a son is all the greater in China precisely because many families are limited to just one child. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that by 2020 there will be at least 24 million "bare branches" — men destined to stay single because there are not enough wives to go around. As more of those boys become bachelors, China risks all sorts of social plagues — from criminal gangs to greater trafficking in women.
The other danger is that China will grow gray before it is rich enough to cope. Reducing population growth has meant that per capita GDP rates have zoomed upward. But factories are now facing shortages of young, skilled labor. By 2050, one-third of Chinese will be elderly. Despite its communist heritage, the People's Republic has little in the way of a national social-security system. Will a generation of "little emperors" be willing or able to support their parents and grandparents?...

...In today's urban China, where fertility rates have dipped so low as to convince local officials to actually encourage procreation, many couples are still choosing a single child. Their preference can be partly explained by 30 years of official propaganda. But it's also a choice made the world over by yuppies who don't want their freedom and finances compromised by the pitter-patter of too many little feet. If anyone's still using my old Mandarin textbook, it's probably safe to skip that page with the dizzying array of cousins. _Time


Is Chinese society strong enough to hold together when one third of the population is old, and there are not enough young people to take care of the hundreds of millions of elderly? Without strong kinship relations, and in the face of possible economic turmoil, will overworked single children -- perhaps with single children of their own -- want to take the time to watch over sick, frail, and possibly demented parents or grandparents?

Orphans and parents who lose children to accidents or disease will find themselves in a particularly bad situation.

An extended family with close ties is able to do far more for individual members than most politically focused persons tend to admit. Perhaps that is why religions are beginning to make inroads into Chinese society. Membership in religious organisations may provide the extended family which restricted kinship cannot provide.

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