The new Year of the Rabbit coincides with a historical reversal in China’s epic story. The Chinese population is shrinking, and India may now be the world’s most populous country. This demographic reversal was expected, but it has come sooner than anticipated. Its cause: the absurd policy of the Chinese Communist Party. Since taking power in 1949, the Party has tried to control everything, including the intimate life of couples. This is revolting in itself, but even worse is the fact that the Party has constantly changed its views on the subject, imposing one deranged idea after another by force.
In the beginning, Mao Zedong sought to increase the birthrate, which was already very high in this heavily rural country. He held that China’s power could be measured by its population—the more children, the better. Mao would sacrifice at least 1 million people, from 1950 to 1953, in the Korean War, and 40 million, it is estimated, in the famines caused by the collectivization of land.
When Deng Xiaoping succeeded Mao in 1979, the Party reversed course: population, previously considered an asset, was now seen as a burden. Deng believed in the productivity of individuals in a rational economy, not in numbers. Throughout the rest of the world, a nation’s birthrate falls as its economy modernizes, children have access to schools, and infant mortality declines; this has proved a universal demographic law. But in China, the Party invented an alternate reality: Deng forbade Chinese parents from having more than one child and deployed the Party’s propaganda apparatus to achieve this goal. Worse still, a special police force, much feared and operating under no restraints, intruded into homes to count children and force pregnant women who already had at least one child to abort—a horror that the rich escaped by paying a fine.
This violence checked demographic growth, but with consequences unanticipated by the Party. Parents, preferring boys, killed girls at birth. This mass infanticide explains why, today, about eight women exist for every ten men in China, a gender gap that makes marriage difficult and kindles violence. The policy had other dramatic consequences. Traditionally, in this conservative society, where pensions are rare, children take care of their aged parents. But without a sufficient number of children, elderly parents are now abandoned to their misery. One has only to travel to any village in western China to discover the poverty of the elderly rural population and of retired workers who have returned to the land of their birth, as provided for by the law on right of residency.
Then along comes Xi Jinping, and with him, another reversal: henceforth, the Party dictates that women should have at least two children. It even awards premiums to obedient parents. Alas (or rather, fortunately), couples do just as they please. In a country now urbanized, parents are in the habit of having only one child, or none: apartments are tiny, good schools are expensive, and one must pay for real medical care, the costs of which are out of reach for the middle classes as well as for the poor. The brusque demographic reversal of the Year of the Rabbit is not, as in other countries, the result of natural behaviors but of the Communist Party’s power madness.
Besides the abandonment of the elderly, the impossibility of marriage, and the disappearance of family life, the overall aging of the population, in the absence of renewal, weakens Chinese productivity: the labor market tightens, which hurts output and causes rising salaries and general inflation. China, which benefited so much from globalization, thanks to its lower wages and—it must be acknowledged—its remarkable capacities of industrial organization, is now rivaled or surpassed by neighbors with a better labor supply, such as Vietnam, the Philippines, and India. Unlike South Korea or Taiwan, China has not yet succeeded in compensating for this loss of labor with scientific innovations. And foreign investment, which played an essential role in China’s takeoff, is now turning away, not only because of the cost of wages but also because of the political and legal insecurity aggravated by Emperor Xi.
The Year of the Rabbit is thus off to a bad start for the Chinese, but also for the West, since our fates are linked. The factories of Europe and the United States are grinding to a halt due to the lack of materials provided by China; it will take years to reconstitute supply chains that bypass Beijing. In China, however, the downturn has already taken hold; China’s decline has begun.
We should be wary, though, of the megalomania of the current leader. For ten years, Xi has aroused aggressive nationalist sentiments that did not exist before his rule. His repeated threats against Taiwan, whose economic success and democracy he finds intolerable, might at any moment issue into an armed conflict—an Asian Ukraine. It is said in diplomatic circles and by sinologists that Xi is less demented than Vladimir Putin. But what do we really know? In fact, we don’t know. The worst is never certain, but we had better prepare for it.
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