Hopefully 2020 will be the year in which policy makers, thinkers and the general public throughout the West and the Indo-Pacific region wake up to the competition and threat that Communist China represents. China’s less than subtle actions in Hong Kong, on the Indian border, in the waters around Taiwan, Japan and in the South China Sea have probably helped people see the reality of an assertive China which is not prepared to comply with the global order established in the aftermath of World War Two, and which has very different ideas about IP, civil freedoms and international law, among other things.

China has often featured in this blog over the years. Not only is it the most populous nation in the world (still, perhaps; just, maybe) but it is also one in which horrific social engineering experiments such as the one-child policy have been carried out and their deleterious effects have become clear. The demographic strength of China is its massive population and its correspondingly large working age population. It has used this advantage to rapidly grow wealthy over the last few decades, skilfully using its demographic dividend.

The demographic weakness of China has been its persistently low birthrate: it is getting old before it is rich enough; its working aged population is falling; and its overall population is about to tip over into negative territory. These trends will be important factors in China’s decision making over the short to medium term and in other nations’ reactions to those decisions. Over the next couple of posts I will discuss other aspects of China’s population trends drawing from an excellent article in Foreign Policy, by Lyman Stone.

The first aspect I wish to discuss is the ethnic approach to natalist policies in China. This builds on Michael Cook’s excellent piece last week, which discussed the report of forced sterilisations and birth suppression of the Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of the country. As Stone notes, the anti-natalist policies of Beijing towards the Uyghur Muslims is only one side of the coin. On the other side are a number of pro-natalist policies for the ethnic majority, the Han Chinese.

During the years of the one-child policy, (which was rescinded in 2015) there were a number of exceptions which meant that it was not applied evenly across the population. Indeed, by 2007 the majority of Chinese citizens could legally have two children. The most common exception was that families with a girl could be granted an exemption to have a second child (and try for a boy).

But in addition, there were different rules for ethnic minorities who were considered to be on a different path of progress than the Han Chinese. Ethnic minorities were the “younger brothers” of the Han Chinese and were not expected to have to comply with the full rigour of the law. Thus, by the time of the 2000 census, Han Chinese women had about 0.5 to 1 fewer children per woman on average than women of other ethnicities. This in turn led to a rise in the non-Han share of China’s population. In 2000, 92 per cent of those over the age of 30 were Han Chinese, but only 87 per cent of newborns were.

Thus the relaxation of the one-child policy was in practice only for urban Han Chinese. At the same time, the legal and social position of minorities is in decline. Efforts to Sinicize minority groups have been sped up. We all know about the concentration camps in Xinjiang, and we have learned about the forced sterilizations in the same region, but there are other examples: Muslims in Ningxia are pressured to adopt less overtly religious public lives; a new “ethnic unity” regulation has been put in place in Tibet; and there is an ethnic dimension to the repression in Hong Kong where self-identified ethnic Hong Kongers make up the majority.

This repression of minorities and pro-natalist policies for Han Chinese has started to have a demographic impact. Between 1998 and 2018 areas of the country with very few minorities (Beijing, Shanghai, Shandong and Fujian) have seen their crude birth rate rise slightly, while regions with higher concentrations of minorities (Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Hong Kong and Yunnan) have seen large declines in birth rates.

The demographic policies of the Chinese Communist Party have flipped almost 180 degrees in the last two decades. Whereas it used to limit Han Chinese fertility to avert famine and promote economic development and allowed ethnic minorities some flexibility, now it is supporting Han parents and increasing discrimination against minority groups. The reported genocide in Xinjiang is part of a broader picture. In the next piece, I will discuss the military aspect of these demographic policies.  

Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...