Super-Performers

Peter Laslett

  • Communiqué of the State Statistical Bureau of the People’s Republic of China on Major Figures in the 1982 Population Census
    Beijing, 6 pp, October 1982
  • Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China by Judith Stacey
    California, 324 pp, £24.25, December 1983, ISBN 0 520 04825 3
  • Long Lives: The Chinese Elderly and the Communist Revolution by Deborah Davis-Friedmann
    Harvard, 160 pp, £17.00, November 1983, ISBN 0 674 53860 9
  • Beyond Sixty-Five: The Dilemma of Old Age in America’s Past by Carole Haber
    Cambridge, 181 pp, £17.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 521 25096 X

China is a poor country. In 1978 the World Bank estimated that gross national product was no more than $290 per person. Yet everything which happens in China is inevitably important if only because the country is so very, very big. The Third Census of the People’s Republic, taken in July 1982, recorded 1,031,882, 511 Chinese, including, we may notice, the 18 million in ‘Taiwan Province’ and five and a half million in the ‘Hongkong and Macao Region’. These were not unexpected totals. Western demographers do not seem likely to quarrel with them, or to doubt that China is the first political society to attain a billion people, and to include a quarter of the population of the world. What does give us pause, and may reveal something of the efficient working of that ancient and colossal polity, is the great rapidity with which the counting was carried out. The preliminary results were published on 27 October 1982, 17 weeks after the count, which is only ten weeks longer than our own record in 1981. Moreover, all this happened in a country where automatic computation was virtually unknown, and where, the Head of the Census informs us, over five million enumerators and over a million census supervisors had to be mobilised and trained. Computer analysis is now going on, using machinery which the United Nations has helped to provide. This will yield the detailed statistics which Chinese administrators so urgently need from their first national enumeration since 1964. In China, according to the Census Communiqué, about 23.5 per cent of all persons are illiterate or semi-literate, about a third of the population has no more than a primary-school education, and not much more than one in 200 has been to a university. Yet these levels are markedly better than they were in 1964, in spite of all that happened in between. Perhaps we need not be so surprised at the rapidity of the calculations, since, in a sense, arithmetic has always been mechanised. The use of the abacus is pretty well universal.

There are, however, other circumstances which convince us that, in all the techniques required for swift action on a scale entirely unparalleled elsewhere, the Chinese are outstanding performers. This certainly seems to be the case in demographic matters whose complexity and difficulty have defeated richer, better-educated, smaller and in every way more ‘modern’ societies. ‘Super-performers’, the American academic authorities call them, and the words in which these high experts describe the Chinese achievement in the reduction of mortality since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949 are worth quotation: ‘China has probably gained over 1.5 years of life expectancy for each year since then. This is a record of sustained and rapid progress which has seldom been matched. Much of the credit is due to unusual emphasis on simple preventive measures, which are widely distributed by auxiliary medical personnel’ – that is to say, the famous bare-foot doctors. ‘This large nation,’ the Americans continue, ‘seems to have attained a relatively advanced health status hitherto confined to developed and small developing countries ... The speed and extent of China’s achievement in mortality control are unprecedented among the world’s populous countries.’ This firmly-worded admission was finally made after years of doubt as to the justifiability of the figures and of the claims based upon them. It is founded upon the most rigorous possible analysis of the evidence.

China now has an expectation of life at birth in the late sixties – a level which was reached in Britain only about twenty-five years ago. At the higher ages the comparison is equally striking. The Chinese elderly go on living for at least two-thirds of the time that the elderly do in our own country. All this must be due to their extraordinary success in reducing mortality. It is nevertheless the case that at the present time the proportion of the later age groups in the Chinese population is low, less than half of what it is with us. For it is not usually mortality but fertility which affects the proportion of persons in the later years.

During the Seventies, the People’s Republic of China, as is now widely known, turned its attention to fertility. At the end of that decade, in 1979, they proclaimed the most drastic policy ever adopted anywhere for reducing the number of births, laying it down that no more than one child should be raised by any couple. It is not possible to say whether such an extreme measure will take literal effect, even in this most effective of all authoritarian regimes – effective, that is to say, from the point of view of demographic policy. It seems unlikely that the one-child family could ever be a uniform pattern, especially in the countryside, where the Census Communiqué confirms that four-fifths of the population still live, and it is even said that, under very exceptional circumstances, two children may be permitted. Visitors and commentators differ as to the progress being made, and in their opinion of the sanctions used to impose the policy, sanctions which aroused such feeling in some viewers of the BBC programme on the subject.

Figures published last summer from a countrywide sample survey carried out in 1981 purport to show that, between 1970 and 1979, the Chinese birth rate fell by no less than 52 per cent. Until recently, Western demographers have been reluctant to accept the fall in mortality in China as genuine: they will find it much more difficult to believe that the Chinese can have cut fertility in half within the decade. Such an achievement is virtually unprecedented in a world where frantic efforts have been made in almost every developing area for over twenty years to get the growth rate down, efforts which have been inspired and subsidised by United Nations agencies, by the large American foundations and by a whole industry of research and experiment. If the largest developing country of them all can have brought this about entirely by its own efforts, the Chinese will have to be seen as awesome performers in the control of fertility.

There are grounds for some scepticism about the figures. National sample surveys are difficult propositions, even in less unwieldy societies possessing all the experience and technical resources which China so eminently lacks. Confidence is not encouraged by the fact that it was not, apparently, the women themselves who were questioned about the numbers, dates and histories of their pregnancies, but the heads of the households in which the women lived. (Here is further confirmation of the authoritarian patriarchy which still persists in that supposedly liberated society and which Western feminists find so disappointing. Judith Stacey gives testimony to this disappointment in Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China, and it makes a rather poignant episode in the disenchantment of her fellow believers in the Marxist revelation.) Moreover, the preliminary Census results themselves have disconcerted the leaders of China’s nationwide crusade. Previous sources, such as the national sample survey, had led them to expect a crude birth rate – that is, births per thousand of people – of well below twenty: in fact, as determined by the most accurate method, it turned out to be 20.91. A disappointment no doubt, but even on the basis of this statistic alone China has to be acknowledged as being among the most successful of all developing countries in mastering population increase, with a lower crude birth rate in 1981 than any other Asian country for which we have statistics, except Japan and small city-states like Singapore. From a level of over thirty-five in the late 1960s, the Chinese birth rate, in falling to 21 in the early 1980s, has come to be about the same as that of Eire.

The campaign leaders in Beijing may have anticipated the rise in fertility which seems to have occurred in 1981 itself, given the enormous birth cohorts produced during the Sixties when control of reproduction, along with bourgeois demographic principles as a whole, was excoriated by the Cultural Revolutionaries. This outsize generation began to reproduce in the 1980s, and it may have been the need to provide for these imminent circumstances that brought about the decision to adopt the one-child policy in 1979. Whatever one may think of the campaigners’ methods, one cannot help admiring their efficiency. The battle is being fought on the factory floor, in the meetings of the Brigades, in every household and in the mind of every individual. That they have won an astonishing victory already there can be no doubt, however hard they may find it to contain the increase of their population to two hundred million by the year 2000, which is the present object of their contraceptive policy.

That the Chinese must stop their mounting numbers from eating away every hard-won increase in their resources, as has been the case until now, will be granted on every side, except by those in the extremest grip of ideological orthodoxy. But the long-term consequences of interference – ignorant and irresponsible interference, as it seems to some observers – with the population processes of their huge society could be as disastrous as the consequences of their earlier decision that it was doctrinally desirable to let the population rip. For the closer they get to the target of only two hundred million more by the end of the century, and to the one-child family as the norm, the older their population will eventually become, and the quicker the aging process will be. For the next twenty-five to thirty years, not much is likely to happen, and the campaigners have taken comfort from this fact. Thereafter, the proportion of the elderly will begin to grow, as it did in Britain between 1940 and 1980 – slowly at first, but at a gathering pace, which might soon become faster than the most rapid such development known to demographers. By the third or fourth decade of the 2000s, a quarter or even a third of the population would be over sixty. One more unknown and unique demographic situation in the largest population in the world.

Although it may – or even must – be true that, in a country like China, no substantial rise in income per head can come about unless the rate of population growth is drastically reduced, it emphatically does not follow that a fall in fertility by itself ensures a growth in resources. The possibility has to be faced that the vast nation of the Chinese, and all other developing nations too, may grow old whilst they are still poor, by our standards miserably poor. Moreover, and this ineluctable consequence of a fall in births and a rise in the proportion of the old has not, as far as I know, been referred to by the Chinese, their kin linkages will be progressively attenuated.

In a population where no woman gave birth to more than one child, babyhood and childhood would become a rarity; and there would be no lateral relationships at all; no aunts or uncles, no cousins, no brothers and no sisters – only filial linkages, parental, grandparental and occasionally great-grandparental. Such a bizarre population would have the further characteristic of halving itself at the passage of every generation, so falling into insignificance, even in the case of China. Just to imagine a fantastical situation of this kind, which will nevertheless be the inevitable consequence of a policy already proclaimed to be a universal, virtually unbreakable imperative by authorities with the power to get their way, is to recognise the naivety, the almost childlike irresponsibility, it might be said, of what the Chinese are so earnestly pursuing. Moreover, it is very risky to think that it would be possible to reverse their policy and let more babies be born if falling fertility threatened to bring about a dangerous level of dependency. Population dynamics in any case might rule it out.

The attenuation of kinship resulting from more moderate reductions in the size of the family, like those which have now made the Europeans the oldest societies which have so far existed, is a fascinating subject of study. Kinship as a bonding between persons not related to each other by direct procreation is rapidly declining in emphasis, and will never again be the salient experience it has been hitherto in the history of the human race, everywhere in the world. This is something which anthropologists may find it worth reflecting upon. It has an obvious bearing on the fate of the elderly, to the extent that they are dependent on their kinfolk for support. As Deborah Davis-Friedmann’s useful and timely study, Long Lives: The Chinese Elderly and the Communist Revolution, demonstrates, there can be no doubt that in China the support of elderly persons is very largely a familial matter. Chinese marriage laws and the repeated declarations of the authorities make this evident; and considering the resources at the disposal of the Chinese state, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise either at the present time or – in view of the facts we have reviewed – in the foreseeable future, extending into the era when the Chinese elders may make up such a large part of that enormous nation. With lateral kin linkages shrinking and tending to disappear, with their connection to the rest of society becoming reduced to one individual bond, and that bond subject to all the uncertainty of individual life-expectation and to the chances of personal incompatibility, the Chinese elderly of the future look like being in a very hazardous position. Another factor which must be considered is the well-known Chinese preference, near-exclusive preference, for sons, though under the one-child rule only a half, in fact somewhat under a half, can expect to have sons rather than daughters alive when they are in their later years. Such a formidable attachment to males inevitably raises the possibility that, under the one-child rule, females will be sacrificed at birth, and couples stuck with a daughter will defy the law.

It was to be expected that such topics as the sex ratio at birth would occupy our conversations at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure when three Chinese scholars with demographic interests visited us a few weeks ago and presented us with the first results of their 1982 Census and with the account of their 1981 sample survey of fertility. When the aging of the population came up, the ground seemed rather less familiar to our guests. When we put questions about the support systems of the elderly and about increasing kinship attrition, it seemed evident that we were entering a world that was entirely unknown to them. At the request of our visitors, we made use of the simulation program we have been developing which makes it possible to determine kinship linkages on the basis of fertility histories and other demographic inputs. Taking the one-child rule to be universal, the program produced kinship statistics which evidently gave our visitors food for thought. The question for the Chinese is, at what point in the future will a severe and successful policy of fertility control begin to entail serious – and, for practical purposes, irreversible – consequences in respect of kinship support for the elderly population, considered in relation to their hoped-for progress in the expansion of resources. We have undertaken to provide such crucial information on these subjects as we can by the more detailed and realistic simulation which determined work on Chinese statistics may make possible. It is a curious feeling, to set out, as a member of a sub-unit on aging in a small English research organisation, to try to determine what may happen in a generation or two in such a vital area of the social life of a whole quarter of the human race.

However, we do not wish to confine the exercise to this area, vast as, in a sense, that area must be. We intend, if we can, to set up China as the extreme example of the aging process in a population, and of its consequences on kinship linkages in that population. What will happen in China, as I have tried to show, is the limiting case of what is now already in progress in our own part of the world, and of what may eventually become a characteristic feature of all human populations. We also want to learn all we can from such studies as that on the elderly and their present position in China in order to investigate by analogy the position of the elderly in our own pre-industrial, peasant past. In this context, works like Carole Haber’s Beyond Sixty-Five: The Dilemma of Old Age in America’s Past are an extremely interesting comparative source.