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

Chapter 1 Preface


“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 according to the latest estimates by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, about a billion of the 1.2 billion Chinese living on the mainland today will still be alive in 2025—accounting for about seven out of every ten of the 1.4 billion Chinese then alive.

The main population wildcard in China’s future is fertility. The Census Bureau suggests that the nation’s total fertility rate (TFR) now averages a bit under 1.8 births per woman per lifetime (significantly below the 2.1 births necessary for long-term population stability). For broad portions of the Chinese populace, fertility appears to be even lower— as depressed as 1.3 lifetime children per woman in some cities. In Beijing and Shanghai, TFRs may actually have fallen under one by 1995!

The Census Bureau assumes Chinese fertility will aver- age about 1.8 births per woman through 2025. But today’s childbearing takes place under the shadow of the country’s severe—and coercive—antichild campaign. Might not the birth rate leap up if that program were discarded or reversed? It’s impossible to be sure, but bits of evidence suggest that a revolution in attitudes about family size has swept China since Mao’s death—and that this would prevent fertility from surging back toward more traditional patterns, even if all governmental controls were relaxed. Consequently, the Bureau projects that China will be reaching zero population [growth] 25 years from now.

The “Graying” of China’s Population
But China’s population will look quite different than it does today, as the nearby chart reveals. China in 2025 will have fewer children: The population under 15 years of age is projected to be almost 25 percent smaller than today. The number of people in their late twenties may drop nearly 30 percent. But persons in their late fifties stand to swell in number by over 150 percent, and there will be more people between the ages of 55 and 59 than in any other five-year age span. Persons 65 years or older are likely to increase at almost 3.5 percent a year between now and 2025, accounting for over three-fifths of the country’s population growth.

In short, if Census Bureau projections prove correct, China’s age structure is about to shift radically from the “Christmas tree” shape so familiar among contemporary populations to something more like the inverted Christmas trees we see...

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China’s Growing Population Will Lead to Worldwide Food Shortages

Lester R. Brown is president of the Worldwatch Institute, a nonprofit institute that raises awareness about global environmental problems. In the following viewpoint, excerpted from his book Who Will Feed China?: Wake-Up Call for a Small Planet, Brown contends that as China’s population grows, valuable cropland will be lost to industrialization. The country will have to import increasing amounts of grain to feed its people, which will lead in turn to worldwide increases in the price of food. China’s food shortages will become the world’s food shortages, Brown argues, thus sending a “wake-up call” to the rest of the world about the serious global problem of overpopulation.

As you read, consider the following questions:

1. In Brown’s view, how will industrialization in China result in less land that is available for raising food crops?

2. In the author’s opinion, what is the immediate challenge facing China?

We often hear that the entire world cannot reasonably aspire to the U.S. standard of living or that we cannot keep adding 90 million people a year indefinitely. Most people accept these propositions. Intuitively, they realize that there are constraints, that expanding human demand will eventually collide with the earth’s natural limits. Yet, little is said about what will actually limit the growth in human demands. Increasingly, it looks as though our ability to expand food production fast enough will be one of the earlier constraints to emerge. This is most immediately evident with oceanic fisheries, nearly all of which are being pushed to the limit and beyond by human demand. Water scarcity is now holding back growth in food production on every continent. Agronomic limits on the capacity of available crop varieties to use additional fertilizer effectively are also slowing growth in food production.

A Worldwide Increase in Food Prices
Against this backdrop, China may soon emerge as an importer of massive quantities of grain—quantities so large that they could trigger unprecedented rises in world food prices. If it does, everyone will feel the effect, whether at supermarket checkout counters or in village markets. Price rises, already under way for seafood, will spread to rice, where production is constrained by the scarcity of water as well as land, and then to wheat and other food staples. For the first time in history, the environmental collision between expanding human demand for food and some of the earth’s natural limits will have an economic effect that will be felt around the world.

It will be tempting to blame China for the likely rise in food prices, because its demand for food is exceeding the carrying capacity of its land and water resources, putting excessive demand on exportable supplies from countries that are living within their carrying capacities. But China is only one of scores of countries in this situation. It just happens to be the largest and, by an accident of history, the one that tips the world balance from surplus to scarcity.

Analysts of the world food supply/demand balance have recognized that the demand for food in China would climb dramatically as industrialization accelerated and incomes rose. They have also assumed that rapid growth in food production in China would continue indefinitely. But on this latter front, a closer look at what happens when a country is already densely populated before it industrializes leads to a very different conclusion. In this situation, rapid industrialization inevitably leads to a heavy loss of cropland, which can override any rises in land productivity and lead to an absolute decline in food production.

Lessons from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan
Historically, there appear to be only three other countries that were densely populated in agronomic terms before industrializing— Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. The common experience of these three gives a sense of what to expect as industrialization proceeds in China. For instance, the conversion of grainland to other uses, combined with a decline in multiple cropping in these countries over the last few decades, has cost Japan 52 percent of its grain harvested area, South Korea 46 percent, and Taiwan 42 percent.

As cropland losses accelerated, they soon exceeded rises in land productivity, leading to steady declines in output. In Japan, grain production has fallen 32 percent from its peak in 1960. For both South Korea and Taiwan, output has dropped 24 percent since 1977, the year when, by coincidence, production peaked in both countries. If China’s rapid industrialization continues, it can expect a similar decline.

While production was falling, rising affluence was driving up the overall demand for grain. As a result, by 1994, the three countries were collectively importing 71 percent of their grain.

Exactly the same forces are at work in China as its transformation from an agricultural to an industrial society progresses at a breakneck pace. Its 1990 area of grainland per person of 0.08 hectares is the same as that of Japan in 1950, making China one of the world’s most densely populated countries in agronomic terms. If China is to avoid the decline in production that occurred in Japan, it must either be more effective in protecting its cropland (which will not be easy, given Japan’s outstanding record) or it must raise grain yield per hectare faster during the next few decades than Japan has in the last few—an equally daunting task, considering the Japanese performance and the fact that China’s current yields are already quite high by international standards.

Loss of Cropland and Irrigation Water
Building the thousands of factories,...

(The entire section is 2355 words.)

China Faces Serious Environmental Problems

In the following viewpoint, Chenggang (Charles) Wang describes the environmental problems facing China, which include air pollution and acid rain, water pollution and water shortages, excess garbage, and deforestation. China’s problems are so enormous because of the sheer number of people involved, he explains, and will become more severe as the nation industrializes its economy. Wang is a senior scientist at Environmental Elements Corporation and a frequent lecturer on doing business with China.

As you read, consider the following questions:

1. How many of the world’s ten most polluted cities are in China, according to the study by the World Health Organization that the author cites?

2. What...

(The entire section is 2920 words.)

China Faces Serious Economic Problems

China has become one of the world’s fastest growing economies, asserts Wayne M. Morrison in the following viewpoint. Since 1979, China has been moving away from its communist state-controlled economy, adopting some principles of free trade, and privatizing many businesses. The country’s move toward free markets must continue, warns Morrison, if China is to overcome the many problems associated with its previously stagnant economy, which include inadequate energy and transportation systems as well as regulations that continue to inhibit free trade. Morrison is a researcher in the economics division of the Congressional Research Service, part of the Library of Congress.

As you read, consider the following questions:...

(The entire section is 3013 words.)

China Faces the Threat of Political Instability

As Robert D. Kaplan explains in the following viewpoint, China’s long history includes periods in which the populace has revolted against a weak central government, and periods in which “warlord” regimes have ruled with an iron fist. Kaplan argues that China is currently coming out of a “warlord” phase—the government of Mao Zedong’s Communists. As the Chinese government becomes less totalitarian, Kaplan notes, its control over China’s huge population will weaken. He warns that if economic and social conditions in China worsen, civil strife could result. Kaplan is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and the author of several books, including An Empire Wilderness.

As you read, consider...

(The entire section is 1527 words.)

Chapter 1 Periodical Bibliography


The following articles have been selected to supplement the diverse views presented in this chapter. Addresses are provided for periodicals not indexed in the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, the Alternative Press Index, the Social Sciences Index, or the Index to Legal Periodicals and Books.

Economist. “The Ageing of China,” November 21, 1998. Available from 25 St. James’s St., London, UK, SW1A 14G.

Elizabeth Economy. “Painting China Green,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 1999.

Jack A. Goldstone. “The Coming Chinese Collapse,” Foreign Policy, Summer 1995.

Mark A. Groomsbridge. “China’s Mixed Economy,”...

(The entire section is 199 words.)