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The End

—An Aging Population: The Family Planning Series

He Chongyue


Since 2007, I began to focus on a series of social issues arising from the family planning initiative. An Aging Population is an extension of my Family Planning Series. Over the years, I have driven to the countryside to conduct interviews in various provinces, including Hebei, Shanxi, Sichuan as well as Yunnan and Guizhou. I’ve conducted extensive market research, and I have frequently conferred with sociology scholars and figures from philosophy circles. From a sociological perspective, I have investigated the demographic changes caused by family planning and urbanization that are leading to social problems; from a philosophical perspective, I’ve investigated the value of human existence as well as the connections between space and environment.

Specific international standards used to determine whether a country or region is undergoing demographic aging are usually defined as an above-60 population accounting for 10% of the overall demographic or as an above-65 population accounting for 7% of the overall demographic as a nation or region

Since the family planning policy was implemented at the end of the 1970s, China has effectively brought its population growth under control. But this policy has also lead to the rapid aging of China’s population.

The present status of China’s aging demographic is as follows. Firstly, population aging has already reached an early peak. In the late 20th century, the implementation of the family planning policy lead to a rapid decrease in the population’s birth rates and accelerated the course of population aging. If the nation’s family planning policy is maintained, it will result unavoidably in a population-aging peak. Secondly, a poorly developed economic state will occur in a population-aging society. In developed countries, the norm is “make your wealth before you age’. In China, the belief is ‘you’re never wealthy until your old’. Because the economy is not yet strong, it will undoubtedly make solving issues in population aging more difficult to tackle. Thirdly, various intricate and complex contradictions in society occur, further complicating population aging issues.

The elderly people in my work serve as the last peasants in China’s final generation of farming culture. For the most part, they come from the New China, established in 1949; they are the inheritors of a traditional, agricultural, manual technology and are intimate with the soil; they experienced the Great Leap Forward; at the same time, they experienced the difficulties of what’s known as ‘Three Years of Natural Disaster’; they lived through the purges of the ‘Cultural Revolution’; meanwhile, they have also experienced ‘thirty years of Opening and Reform’. They experienced extremely painful moments, and yet they have not been granted the benefits ushered in by the Opening and Reform. For the most part, their children have been turned into migrant workers by ‘urbanization’ in the cities where they reside. Their grandchildren’s generation, along with themselves, have become ‘children left-behind’. Now that they have completely lost their capacity for work and have to depend on support from their children, they are a generation deserted by society and nation. They live in old, squat, broken-down houses. They do not enjoy the metropolitan benefits of pension and welfare housing. All they have is the land, and yet, in the onslaught of old age, they are increasingly alienated from the land, which now provides them with no actual worth. Their living conditions are a reflection of unequal distribution in Chinese society.

For the elderly to make up for 10 to 20 percent of the overall population, Germany and the United States will require a period of 60 years, while China only requires a period of about 20 years. This means that the absolute quantity of China’s aging population will be of tremendous scope and will rise exponentially. By 2015, China’s aging population will break through to 200 million people. By 2027, it will exceed 300 million people, and in 2044 it will reach 400 million. The absolute quantity of China’s elderly will have exceeded the entire population of most countries. These issues are specific to the course of population aging in China.

Having entered the 21st century, the demographic that China now confronts will see another fundamental shift in human reproduction. The traditionally high birth-rate, high mortality rate and slow growth since the 1950s will transfer to high birth-rate, low mortality rate and rapid growth. In a period of just another 30 years, it will exceed the low birth rates, the low mortality rates and the slow growth established since the 1990s of the last century. In addition, the decline in birthrates is fundamentally irreversible.

In the event that Chinese industrialization and urbanization is accelerated, and without a regulatory demographic policy, Chinese attitudes toward birth will be difficult to alter in the future. The total population and birth rates will remain at current levels or even drop below current levels. These two changes will determine the trend of China’s demographic structural changes. For instance, with the arrival of population aging, there will be an imbalance in the gender ratio, single children will become the demographic backbone of China’s cities and towns, and there will be an increase as well in the proportion of China’s minority populations and an increase in inhabitants in the western part of the country.

As a result of more intense population aging, the ratio of social dependants will increase, requiring increased expenditures for geriatric care and medical treatment, leading to increased consumption of the national budget in addition to higher investments, and also leading to financial restraints on the nation’s long-term growth. If China consequently suffers from economic stagnation, what today’s Chinese affectionately refer to as the “Rise of the Nation” and “the Great Rejuvenation” will be a mere illusion – like catching moonlight on a pond – and just a bunch of wishful thinking to boot.

A society that sustains the long term effects of population aging and in which the work force is made up of the one-child generation, must also be on guard and provide for warfare. In a situation where at least half of the families are one-child families, the ability for the society to shoulder warfare will be completely unlike that of the past.

With China’s transformation from a traditional agricultural population to a modern industrial and commercial population, most of the agricultural population is moving into the cities, and once the cities experience an economic crisis, many people in these urban areas will become either displaced or homeless. So examining the situation from this point of view – the transformation from traditional rural society to an industrial and commercial society – the population transformation will have produced serious social problems, even to the point of triggering a revolution.

There’s also another issue that can’t be ignored. Due to an imbalance in the gender ratio, a large portion of marriageable men will have no means to organize a normal family. This will not only incite an increase in human trafficking, it might also exacerbate mafia activity and other such factions that endanger social stability.

In the past few years, there has been an increasingly conspicuous crisis of belief and values largely related to demographic structural changes since the 1970s. The heritage of China’s Confucian civilization is dependent on its own particular fertility culture. However, the one-child family generation will not only form the structure for demographic changes, but also for social changes and cultural changes as well. Surveys show that there is a significant attitudinal difference in the one-child generation toward things like family and social responsibility, collective consciousness, cooperative spirit and notions of sacrifice and dedication when compared to previous generations of family-bearing children. For this current generation, the flavor of traditional Chinese values has been diluted.

After 2020, China will formally enter an era of population aging. It will be the inevitable result of population polices adopted by China since the nation’s founding and since the ‘family planning’ adopted since the nation’s Opening and Reform. Demographic balance is key. Neither excessive growth nor drop-off are conducive to the survival of the human race.

I use images to document the living conditions of these elderly people. In China’s dual system of authoritarianism and consumerism, they appear to groan and grimace. They inspire people to show concern and give adequate assistance to a disadvantaged group. Attracted to the idea of a ‘developing’ China, the nation continues to manufacture its own unique group of ruins.

May 2010, Beijing
English translation: Stacey Duff