China's recent decision to reverse – at least in part – its policy limiting most couples to one child marks a watershed in thinking about demographics. Yet, this reversal of the 30-year policy may prove unavailing due to reasons – notably dense urbanization and high property prices – that work against people having more children.
China already faces a demographic crisis unprecedented for a still-poor country. By 2050, China will have 60 million fewer people under 15 years of age, while the over-65 population grows by 190 million, approximately the population of Pakistan, the world's sixth-most populous country. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that China's population will peak in 2026, and then will age faster than any country besides Japan; most of the world's decline in children and workers ages 15-19 over the next two decades will take place in China.
The shift in family-size policy acknowledges these looming demographic changes but may not be sufficient to address them. After all, similar problems have cropped up in other Asian countries, including such successful nations as Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. All face tremendous fiscal crises from the prospect of a diminishing workforce insufficient to support swelling numbers of seniors. This “burden of support” crisis applies even in rich, thrifty countries like Singapore or Japan, but is potentially far more destabilizing in much poorer China.
Perhaps the biggest force undermining both marriage and family – the core institutions of all Confucian societies – can be traced, at least in part, to changes in attitudes associated with urban life. Gavin Jones, a demographer at the National University of Singapore, estimates that up to a quarter of all East Asian women, following the example of women in Japan, will remain single by age 50, and up to a third will remain childless.
“People's lifestyles are more important, and their personal networks mean more than family,” notes Japanese sociologist Mika Toyota. “It's now a choice. You can be single, self-satisfied and well. So why have kids? It's better to go on great holidays, eat good food and have your hobbies. A family is no longer the key to the city life.”
Nowhere are these effects more profound, or important, as in China, where 270 million migrants, mostly from the countryside, have moved to the cities – nearly as many people as lived in the United States a decade ago. But once they arrive, many newcomers often live in poor, crowded conditions, that, along with lacking access to schooling, discourage child-rearing.
The detrimental impact of dense urbanization on family formation is not limited to China, but is especially prevalent in East Asia, where Gavin Jones, Paulin Tay Straughan and Angelique Chan of the National University of Singapore report that “a housing and urban environment unfriendly to children” was a chief reason for women's reluctance to have children (or more children).
As China has urbanized, its fertility rate – the average number of births for each woman of childbearing age – has fallen to 1.55, considerably below the 2.1 “replacement rate” required to maintain the population level. But in the rest of East Asia, fertility rates are even lower. For example, Singapore's fertility rate is 0.79, Taiwan's is 1.11, and South Korea's is 1.24 – even without one-child policies. Moreover, China's fertility rate is elevated because of its higher share of rural population and can be expected to fall as rapid urbanization continues. The depressed urban fertility rates are epitomized by Beijing, at less than 1, and Shanghai, 0.70.
Reforming the one-child policy alone won't much change this reality. A host of pro-natalist policies in countries, including Japan and Singapore, have failed to boost birthrates. China-controlled Hong Kong, which now suffers one of the lowest fertility rates on the planet, was never subject to the one-child policy and has tried to encourage procreation, raising tax breaks to $100,000 per child. Yet these steps hardly off-set the high costs of raising childrenin this dense, bustling and expensive city. A recent Hang Seng Bank study estimates the cost of raising a child in Hong Kong at $515,000 U.S. dollars.
Most damaging, East Asian cities have adopted an urban form almost guaranteed to suppress fertility. Most are usually dominated by skyscraping tower residential blocks and lower-rise residential buildings in which most units have no direct ground access. A 20th-floor balcony is not a substitute for a private yard to play in. Even in Western countries, where cities are usually less-dense, fertility rates are far lower in the urban cores than in the suburbs. Similarly, the birthrates in the urban core of Tokyo are well below those in the suburbs, where yards, though small by Western standards, often are available.
Then there is the problem of affordability. Housing units in the tall residential blocks cost much more to build than ground-oriented dwellings. High costs, particularly for housing, are one reason nearly two in five Chinese, according to Weibo Sina, the country's top social media site, feel the law change will not encourage them to consider having more children.
The Chinese government could take steps making it easier for people to have children. One would be to drive growth to less-expensive areas in the country's vast interior. New government policy reforms have reinforced the commitment for development outside the East Coast, to the center, West and Northeast. Already, interior cities have been made more competitive for manufacturing by connection to the world's longest interstate-type highway system, as well as the highest-volume trucking and freight rail systems.
Spreading out development may help, but only if the form of the new housing shifts to a more family-friendly pattern. Building high-density areas, even in second-tier cities – a major source of wealth for local governments as well as developers – essentially exports Shanghai's child-unfriendly environment to the interior. Instead, a new housing policy that stresses lower densities, more space and greater affordability is a prerequisite for encouraging new families.
The solution could draw on some of China's own marked policy successes. Under Deng Xiaoping, China established special economic zones, such as Shenzhen, to test liberal economic policies. Shenzhen's reforms spread around China and have, literally, transformed the country . More recently, China embarked on a similar program to test financial liberalization, with the establishment of its first financial-services trade zone in Shanghai, and a recent announcement indicates that there will be more.
These innovative policies could be adapted to address China's demographic crisis. It could take the form of a few “special child-friendly zones,” established around midsize and large cities. These zones would allow for development of ground-oriented dwellings with yards and could include housing from single-family detached to multistory townhomes. New residents and existing residents could move to these dwellings, attracted by the improved environment for raising the second child.
For its pilot program, the government could designate suburbs of Chongqing, an interior municipality directly governed from Beijing, as special child-friendly zones. Other interior cities such as Zhengzhou (Henan), Changsha (Hunan), or Xi'an (Shaanxi) could also accommodate similarly designated areas. In the West, including the United States and Northern Europe, birth rates are considerably higher – sometimes by as much as 50 percent – in the suburban periphery than in the city core.
Some in the West may denounce this as a plan for sprawl, but these more humane, ground-oriented residences would not require substantial additional land. Well-designed neighborhoods of single-family houses on small lots and townhouses can be built at high densities. Further, these residential units are usually less-costly. In the United States, high-rise residential construction can cost more than double per square foot as ground-oriented housing.
After initial success, child-friendly zones could be extended to other cities, just as the successful Shenzhen economic reforms gradually swept the nation. Of course, such an approach violates current Western doctrine on urban planning, which is obsessively focused on encouraging people to live in ever-higher densities. Yet these doctrines turn out to be expensive and unwise, and undermine the prospects for families. Reforming the one-child policy is a good first step, but China's best chance to solve its demographic problem lies in developing policies that put families and children first.
This story originally appeared at The Orange County Register.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris and the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.
Photo: Steve Webel