This post was edited by ian901110 at 2012-7-25 14:36|
China's 'one-child' policy has slowed population growth and brought prosperity — but it couldn't avert massive damage to the environment.
An escalator in the Beijing subway is jammed with people. China’s experience shows how rising consumption and even modest rates of population growth magnify each other’s impact on the planet. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
By Kenneth R. Weiss, Los Angeles Times
July 22, 2012
Fourth of five parts
XIAMEN, China — A 6-year-old girl with a bob haircut sat alone on an enormous wraparound couch, dwarfed by the living room furniture and a giant flat-screen TV.
As she flicked the remote in search of cartoons, her parents pointed proudly to the recessed lighting and high ceilings. Then they proceeded with an official tour of their three-story house with white marble floors, oversized windows and a granite entryway flanked by a Corinthian column.
All of this was paid for with a $100,000 interest-free loan from the Chinese government, an incentive to keep the family's size "in policy." For these residents of a rapidly developing rural area, that meant sticking to two girls and giving up the chance to have a son.
The husband, Zhang Qing Ting, an electrical technician, said living in a modern subdivision for in-policy families beats the usual cramped apartments with no garages. He and his wife, Chen Hui Ping, a factory worker, will also be eligible for cash payments when they retire.
"Many of my friends envy me," Zhang said, mopping sweat from his neck as a dozen local officials and family planning bureaucrats looked on. The couple had been given a day off work to showcase the benefits of their restraint to two foreign journalists.
Jin Jing, chairman of Chao Le village, summed up the message: "If you practice family planning, you can get this kind of reward."
For more than three decades, the most populous nation on Earth has been running a massive social experiment, using elaborate incentives and penalties to limit family size.
The aim was to banish hunger and raise living standards, and by many measures the results have been impressive. By reducing the number of dependents per household and freeing more women to enter the workforce, population control efforts have helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and contributed to China's spectacular economic growth.
Prosperity has exacted a steep environmental toll, however.
The colossal industrial expansion of recent decades has depleted natural resources and polluted the skies and streams. China now consumes half the world's coal supply. It leads all nations in emissions of carbon dioxide, the main contributor to global warming. Pollutants from its smokestacks cause acid rain in Seoul and Tokyo.
China's experience shows how rising consumption and even modest rates of population growth magnify each other's impact on the planet.
The country's population of 1.3 billion is increasing, even with the controls on family size. What is driving the growth is that hundreds of millions of Chinese are still in their reproductive years. On such a huge base, even one or two children per couple adds large numbers — an effect known as population momentum.
Moreover, the Chinese are living better overall: consuming more food, energy and goods than ever. One-fourth of the population — the equivalent of everyone in the United States — has entered the middle class.
The U.S. consumes much more per person. But with a population four times larger, China has a greater collective appetite — and a greater ecological impact — than any other country.
The compounding forces of economic and population growth are a source of increasing concern to scientists. An international team of 1,300 researchers organized by the United Nations concluded that evidence points to "abrupt and potentially irreversible changes" in ecosystems in the next few decades, including mass extinctions and rapid climate change.
Within China, signs of environmental damage are pervasive: massive fish kills, lung-searing smog, denuded landscapes. They have stirred popular discontent and the beginnings of greater official concern for curbing pollution and preserving natural resources.
How this drama plays out is not merely China's concern. Because of the nation's sheer size, the rest of the world has an enormous stake in the outcome.
"To solve China's problems is to solve the world's problems," said Yu Xuejun, a director-general in the country's National Population and Family Planning Commission.
China's massive population is a legacy of Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung, who strove to increase the ranks of the Red Army by encouraging large families and banning imports of contraceptives and declaring their use a "capitalist plot."
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a series of famines claimed tens of millions of lives. The suffering left an enduring awareness that the country couldn't sustain unlimited population growth.
As Mao's power waned in the 1970s, other Chinese leaders applied the brakes. Free contraceptives were made widely available. Couples were encouraged to marry later, wait longer to have children and have fewer. In less than a decade, fertility plummeted from nearly six children per woman to fewer than three.
To drive the birthrate down further, Deng Xiaoping imposed the "one-child policy" in 1979. It led to mandated abortions and other abuses by zealous enforcers.
Today, there are many exceptions to the rule: Rural couples and ethnic minorities, for instance, can have two or more children. Although compulsory abortions have been forbidden, families must pay steep fines for having more children than allowed.
Yu, the family planning official, acknowledged that the policy has caused hardships.
"I myself sacrificed," he said, explaining that he forfeited his own dreams and disappointed his father by failing to produce a son. He and his wife had one child, a daughter.
There is widespread recognition [in China] that natural underpinnings of human prosperity are at grave risk.”
Stanford University ecologist