China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2008/Nov

Catholics are not the only ones hit by the one child policy

China’s population policy is not going to change for at least another decade. How will that impact the people and the Church in China?

If this column had been written five years earlier, it would have had almost the same content. Surprising events make headlines, but a slow process can have an even greater impact on society. Population ageing is not like a tree falling without warning, but rather like looking in a mirror now and then as the waistline gradually expands and hairs turn grey. The people who will graduate from university in 2029 and turn 65-years-old in 2073 are sleeping in maternity wards today. What kind of world will they inherit?

Fear of limits to growth

As China was opening up to the outside world 30 years ago, one book that flew in was Limits to Growth, with computer projections of how population and economic growth would soon hit the barrier of finite resources. Business as usual would end in a fatal crash. Beijing soon concluded that China had too many people, that time was short and drastic action was necessary. The result was the One Child Policy of 1980. It proved impossible to enforce in the countryside. So in 1983, farming families were allowed a second baby if the firstborn was physically disadvantaged, mentally disadvantaged, or female.

With exemptions for ethnic minorities, veterans, or an only son marrying an only daughter, it is more a One-and-a-half Child Policy. Some wealthy couples first have a second baby and pay a heavy fine later. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR), the average number of children a woman bears in her life, is now about 1.8. When almost all children survive to adulthood, a generation will replace itself if the TFR is 2.1.

Why is fertility always measured in children per woman? Why not children per man, or children per couple? Because 300 to 350 years ago, an early demographer realised that, because of technical reasons, it is easier to get an accurate count of children per woman than children per man.

In 1980, the optimum population, a long-term goal for a strong, sustainable and prosperous nation, was given as 700 million. China had just then crossed the one billion level. No new calculation has been released, but in recent months officials have repeated the need to continue the current policy for at least another decade to prevent a baby boom. In case China shrinks to 700 million a century from now, its population will be way behind India and slightly behind the United States of America. Is it China’s long-term goal to be number three?

Small families and few vocations

Men outnumber women in the world, because of the imbalance in Asia. This is especially worrisome in India and China. China has 38 million more males than females of all ages. There are more elderly women than senior men, but among children under the age of 15, boys outnumber girls by 17 million. In the coming decades, there will be millions of “bare branches,” grown men with no heirs. Wealthy Taiwan and South Korea are attracting brides from Vietnam and The Philippines, but mainland China is far too large to import its way out of the coming shortage.

Already various types of crimes are increasing because of the scarcity of women. From anecdotal reports, both Christians and Muslims in China will accept either a baby boy or a girl as a gift from God. Yet most people still quote Mencius (孟子 372-289 BC), “Three things are unfilial and the greatest of these is not to have a son” (不孝有三无后为大). A strong case can be made that women have suffered the most and will continue to suffer, from the One Child Policy.

In one seminary, two brothers are enrolled, the only two children of their parents. That farming couple is making a heroic sacrifice. Yet overall, Catholic parents are less and less likely to encourage the only child, or even one of two children, to become a priest or a religious sister. Hong Kong also has a vocation shortage.

Growth and the Catholic Church

Growth is sacred in the global economy. Many economists speak as if the first and only criterion of good governance is how it promotes economic growth. Questions of income distribution, working hours and pollution are worth asking only after the economy is booming.

Yet the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) sees things differently. Economic growth is seen in a favourable light, if it can “provide for the needs of human beings. Economic life is not meant solely to multiply goods produced and increase profit or power; it is ordered first of all to the service of persons…” (n. 2426). While the CCC does not paraphrase Mk. 2:27 here, it seems to say in so many words, “The economy was made for people, not people for the economy.”

The command to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) is repeated in the discussion of marriage (n. 1607). But unlike some other Churches, the Catholic Church does not order everyone who can marry to find a spouse. Priests, sisters, brothers and single adults (n. 1658) all have their role to fill. Families are not urged to have as many children as possible. “Spouses to whom God has not granted children” can still have a meaningful marriage and radiate holiness (n. 1654). The Catechism wisely avoids the idolatry of advocating “Growth for the sake of growth,” which someone has called, “the ideology of the cancer cell.”

Indissolubility, faithfulness and fertility

When the Catechism defines the essentials of marriage, it italicises only three words: indissolubility, faithfulness and fertility (n. 1643). The first two of these are absolute: a couple must intend to remain faithful for life. If they think on their wedding day, “We’ll try it for a few years, then get divorced if we are not happy,” or “We’ll be faithful except on business trips,” then the marriage is null and void as a sacrament. Fertility is prefaced by the words “open to.” If the bride and groom are well into middle age, the priest may omit the question, “Will you accept children as a gift from God?” Yet an attack on any one of those three points is an attack on the Catholic understanding of marriage.

There is no law in Hong Kong prohibiting large families, yet most local families, even Catholic ones, stop at one child. There’s a joke: “In Hong Kong, the most effective form of birth control is high rent.” Why are rents so high in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region?

The duty to practice family planning

The current Chinese Constitution was adopted on 4 December 1982, during the high tide of the One Child Policy.

Most of Article 49 is family-friendly. The state protects “marriage, family, the mother and child.” Parents are responsible for rearing and educating minor children and in turn, adult children have to support their parents. Abuse of the elderly is prohibited. So far so good, from a Catholic viewpoint.

But Article 49 also contains a sentence that is probably found in no other constitution in the world: “Both husband and wife have the duty to practice family planning.”

Catholics live throughout the world, often in nations where both divorce and abortion are legal and common. In some places polygamy is still legal, or at least tolerated.

Local Churches have developed pastoral policies that tell believers not to follow the crowd, but rather to aim for a higher standard. If some government were to pass a law mandating divorce after seven years, Catholics and everyone else would protest loudly and demand to be left alone in their homes.

The impasse continues

In the painfully slow progress towards better Sino-Vatican relations, much has been written about the status of bishops. Most people in the pews see the bishop only when he comes for confirmation and they are only vaguely aware of the existence of the bishops’ conference.

However, the majority of adults are (ahem) intimately familiar with the details of family planning. In order to be good citizens of China, married couples MUST practice family planning, with no exemptions granted for individual conscience or religious membership.

In a few places, officials have accepted natural family planning as fulfilling the requirements of Article 49. If the embassy of the Holy See were to move from Taipei (台北) to Beijing tomorrow, not one of the penalties against surplus births would disappear. This is a seldom-discussed obstacle to diplomatic relations.

Looking ahead

No policy lasts forever. The One Child Policy was intended to reduce the percentage of young dependents in China, thus transferring resources from building schools to building factories. Despite all attempts at evasion, it succeeded in that aim. The bitter irony is how people have internalised the message that an extra child is an impossible expense, just as the number of dependent elderly is about to soar. China will get old before it gets rich.

There was an editorial in a Macau newspaper several months ago arguing that the second child can wear hand-me-down clothing and read the firstborn’s schoolbooks. So it does not cost twice as much to raise two children, only 50 or 60 per cent more. Yet modern fashion ridicules second-hand clothing and parents complain about how often school texts are revised.

South Korea has begun spending large sums on bonuses for extra babies and on subsidies for childcare centres, and its birthrate has risen slightly. Just as in Hong Kong, simply changing the slogans to promote bigger rather than smaller families has had little effect. The Chinese government will not increase the total fertility rate cheaply.

What contribution can mainland Catholics make? They can have as many children as the law allows, currently one or two, hopefully two or three a decade from now. That will entail major sacrifices. In a consumer society, voluntary sacrifice gives witness to the gospel.