China Chapter 1: What Are the Most Serious Problems Facing China?

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Chapter 1 Preface


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“For most of its 3,500 years of history, China led the world in agriculture, crafts, and science, then fell behind in the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution gave the West clear superiority in military and economic affairs,” write the editors of the 1999 CIA World Factbook. As the 21st century begins, the country is beginning to modernize its economy, and in the process, is lifting millions of Chinese out of poverty. China is once again taking its place among the world’s great powers.

Still, China faces many challenges. For example, the nation’s move from an agricultural-based economy to an industrial one is causing enormous environmental problems. In addition, many Chinese are being left behind as China’s economy is transformed: From 60 to 100 million surplus rural workers are adrift between the villages and the cities, subsisting on part-time low-paying jobs. Some experts warn that this could lead to political instability in China, as these poor workers begin to demand action from the government.

All these difficulties are exacerbated by the sheer size of China. The nation is home to over 1.2 billion people, roughly one-fifth of the world’s total population. Thus, China’s most serious problems are occurring on an enormous scale. From air pollution and food shortages to economic or political upheaval, developments in China will inevitably affect the global community. The viewpoints in this chapter examine some of the most pressing problems facing China.

China’s Aging Population Will Cause Serious Problems

Nicholas Eberstadt is a visiting fellow of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. In the following viewpoint, he predicts that as China’s population ages, the nation will face increasingly serious population-related problems. The first will be that by 2025, the number of elderly in China will be far greater than the number of working adults. The second is that the size of China’s work force will shrink, as today’s workers age, with proportionately fewer workers to replace them. Finally, because of the practices of sex-selective abortion and female infanticide in China, there are currently more boys than girls in China. By 2025, millions of adult Chinese males will be unable to find a bride and start a family.

As you read, consider the following questions:

1. What was the median age among Chinese in 1997, and what will it be in 2025, according to the author?

2. According to the Beijing Luntan essay quoted by Eberstadt, what future social problems will China likely experience as a result of the current disparity between male and female births?

While there is little about China’s position in the year 2025 that we can predict with confidence, one critical aspect of China’s future can be described today with some accuracy: her population trends. Most of the Chinese who will be alive in 2025, after all, have already been born.

The most striking demographic condition in China today is the country’s sparse birth rate. Though most of the population still subsists at Third World levels of income and education, fertility levels are remarkably low—below the level necessary for long-term population replacement, in fact. This circumstance of course relates to the notorious “One Child” policy of China’s Communist government, applied with varying degrees of force for nearly two decades.

Ironically, by laboring so ferociously to avoid one set of “population problems”—namely, “overpopulation”—Beijing has helped to ensure that another, even more daunting set of problems will emerge in the decades ahead. Those population problems will be, for Beijing and for the world, utterly without precedent. While impossible to predict their impact with precision, they will impede economic growth, exacerbate social tensions, and complicate the Chinese government’s quest to enhance its national power and security.

Population Growth in China Is Slowing
How can we know fairly well what China’s demography will look like 25 years from now? Because...

(The entire section is 12,275 words.)