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.