'One-Child' and a Graying, Less Trustful China

China’s “one-child policy” will likely lead to a fast increase of the retired portion of the population. In the United States and Japan (and many other countries) this means trouble for national pension systems. China won’t have this problem: There is no universal pension system. But the institution traditionally responsible for care of elders, the family, is changing rapidly, and one effect may be an erosion of trust in society.

Through the lively academic blog orgtheory.net, I found the work of Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar based at the American Enterprise Institute. Writing at orgtheory.net, UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman picked up on an op-ed Eberstadt wrote for The Wall Street Journal in which he declares that the Chinese government is creating a great problem for itself with its population-control policy. One illustrative estimate he makes is that in 20 years, one-third of Chinese women over 60 will not have a living son, meaning many women will have to find other ways to get support in old age.

What really caught my attention here is a point made by Rossman: Once people born under the “one-child policy” have their own kids, people will have no blood-relations in the same generation. Not only will there be no siblings (that’s not so remarkable), there will also be no aunts or uncles. And with no aunts or uncles, there are no cousins. As generations pass, the closest intragenerational relations will be cousins one-removed, then twice-, then thrice-.

Eberstadt writes that China is regarded as a “low-trust society.” This means that people have low latent trust and rely on networks of trust—the famous guanxi, or “relationships”—to feel confident in all manner of social activities, from business transactions to personal relations. Thus the elimination of large family networks represents a considerable reduction in the size of individuals’ trust networks.

All right, you might say, so now people will just have to make friends outside the family. That’s true, but there are two problems. First, Rossman notes that family members can’t be replaced—”you can stop talking to your brother, but you can’t recruit a new brother to replace him.” Second, people will still be able to make friends outside the family, but they won’t be able to depend on a network of “family friends” when there’s no network of family. Myself, I lack siblings, but my parents have three each. Most of them got married and have children. Through absolutely no effort, I’ve been given a large network of people who might help me out of a bind: my relatives and in a real pinch, possibly even their friends.

So who’s going to help Chinese people out of a pinch when this effect sets in? Well, there are of course those personal friends. Also, in my short experience in Beijing, I have noticed my hutong neighborhood has a good deal of trust. People lend each other bikes, look out for each other’s security, and help each other get some practical things done. In language, people often refer to close (or sometimes not-so-close) friends using familial terms. (The practice of calling folks “comrade” has faded for the young, and the term is now a euphemism for homosexuals.) But what network of trust is going to secure business transactions? An increase in the rule of law would likely have that effect. If rules are enforced and public authorities are more available to mediate disputes between parties with no relationship, then a wider trust could set in.

Social engineers, if they had arbitrary power to change society, might even study Japan’s “high-trust” society to see just how it works that lost wallets on Tokyo subways are often turned in with money intact to the nearest station. Many scholars speculate that Japan’s identity as a national family (国家, kokka) headed by the emperor, and a level of ethnic homogeneity much higher than the P.R.C., fed into this. If that’s the case, its notable that China has not developed greater trust with similar national rhetoric (if dissimilar domestic government behavior). Certainly, something other than the rhetoric must be at work.


2 responses to “'One-Child' and a Graying, Less Trustful China”

  1. Falen Avatar

    “As generations pass, the closest intragenerational relations will be cousins one-removed, then twice-, then thrice-.”

    I rolled my eye. Did you REALLY think some dude setting the birth control policy would stay brain dead for three generations of 75 years!??

    Puh-lease! The only thing really scary about the One Child Policy is its name as well as the accompanied over-reaction by the West.

    This image of an entire nation of single child and police dragging off pregnant women into forced abortion is obfuscating the fact that One Child Policy is a system of complex system of birth control program including incentives as well as fines. It is not unlike setting a monetary policy for population with multiple levers of control.
    The policies are constantly been tweaked with old rules phased out and new rules put in. It is applied differently in different geographic location and circumstances.

    According to Wikipedia,

    “…the overall fertility rate of mainland China is, in fact, closer to two children per family than to one child per family (1.8)…”

    Not optimal, but a far cry from the doomsday prediction of eminent social break collapse. There are a lot of ways for discrepancies to be managed.

  2. Graham Webster Avatar

    Admittedly, I didn’t include information here as to the effect of the “one-child policy.” I did keep most references in quotes (I’m adding quotes to the one I missed), but I didn’t mean to imply everyone really has one child.

    I think the demographic analysis, while speculative and somewhat theoretical, is still interesting given that the policy is now going into its second “generation.” Even if it’s not pervasive and the name isn’t perfectly accurate, reducing the number of people who have siblings does have a social effect. I’m new here, but it’s definitely something people talk about—wishing they had siblings, wishing they could have a second child.

    Anyway, for fun, here’s a bit of Rossman’s technical analysis:

    “Second, the unique thing about China is that it has low mean and variance for fertility, with a theoretical range of 0 to 1 (though in fact 3 baby families are not uncommon in rural China). In contrast, most other low fertility countries have low mean and high variance, so households with no babies and with two babies are more common than they are in China. Spaniards may have even fewer babies that the Chinese, but paradoxically a Spanish baby is more likely to have a sibling than is a Chinese baby. The upshot is that while intra-generational family ties are going to disappear in China, they will only weaken (a lot) in Europe. More technically, I’m making a confident prediction that in 30 years mean component size for kin networks will be appreciably higher in Spain or Italy than in China.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *