Warnings of a Baby Boom and the Mysteries of Decision Making in China

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The Director of China’s Family Planning Office, warned yesterday that “the world’s most populous country could face a ‘population rebound’ because the newly rich are ignoring population control laws and because of early marriages in rural areas.” The English-language China Daily reports that Zhang Weiqing went on to expand on his point, all along warning darkly of the consequences, all presumably a prelude to some sort of intensification of enforcement of the one child policy that has been the mainstay of China’s family planning since it was first implemented in 1979. Now all this is very odd, to my ear at least. As we wrote recently on the Time website, many mainstream demographers in China argue that the one child policy has outlived its usefulness (the country is actually facing the prospect of a rapidly aging population over the next couple of decades), and should be retired. It’s not even agreed that the policy was really necessary –or effective– in the first place. And yet, here is Mr. Zhang indicating that what is the government’s most unpopular policy by far may actually be tightened.

China is a complicated, huge country. But the explosive growth it has gone through has propelled much of its decision making processes way past the capabilities for which they were originally designed. Add in the secrecy with which most government decisions are reached and you have a recipe for profound puzzlement. It could be just a bureaucrat protecting his turf: it reasonable to assume that, like Winston Churchill after World War II, Mr. Zhang is not interested in supervising the dismantling of his empire. Or it could be a real signal of a change in policy (until now, the government had been moving in the direction of relaxing its enforcement of the one child policy). We’ll have to wait and see. But putting some cash on no change to the status quo would probably be a good bet.

In fact, given all the constraints and conflicting influences that effect policy making in China–the center-urban chasm, the dead hand of bureaucracy, the overriding interest of the Communist party to name but three — it is sometimes amazing that any action is taken at all when it doesn’t have a clear economic benefit. But the fact is that the cadres in Beijing are responding better and faster to external stimuli than would have seemed possible only a few years ago. Take the HIV crisis in the country. As explained by China scholar Bates Gill in the New England Journal of Medicine the government went from total denial to a admirable treatment and prevention program in the metaphorical blink of an eye. Of course it took the SARS crisis to change attitudes to HIV. Let’s hope that doesn’t mean that tens of thousands have to die in a Bhopal-like disaster before anything is done about the disintegrating environment.