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A Warm Jacket
News From Around the World
Wednesday, November 03, 2010
Ed DeShields

China’s economy has been soaring.  But, it is facing a headwind of its own which threatens to change the fundamentals of their society.  Evidence of this is contained in its newly published five-year plan.

This year’s plan, their 12th and newest roadmap, was presented in a closed-door meeting that also included nominating the next Chinese president.

There is a lot to say about its content, especially because it has been touted as a plan for "economic rebalancing".   The plan discusses a substantial transformation of the Chinese economy into a more consumption-driven one.  Currently, Chinese consumer consumption is a paltry 35% of its gross output as a nation as most of its wealth is diverted into building its powerful infrastructure.  But, as the Chinese people become richer by Western standards, their access to wealth will change and their spending habits will have a profound affect on the world’s economic picture.    

Almost every one on the planet knows that one of the fundamental global imbalances today is the over-production (or surplus) in China and the over-consumption (buying Chinese goods) in the United States and the rest of the world.  If China succeeds in its so-called "rebalancing" act then it will surely help calm some of the tensions in the global economy in the future. 

But as with any plan of this nature it contains some interesting insights on where the society is pointing itself for the future. 

This latest manuscript dedicates a specific section to the promotion of Chinese culture industries and "soft power."  Reading between the lines seems obvious that someone really wanted this to be prominently emphasized in the new plan.  The notion that you can plan to achieve soft power through the development of Chinese culture seems strange.  What's more, the plan offers no details on how they intend to  do it.  The plan wades into some questionable elements like emphasizing new media and internet industries while “handling” public opinion guidance.  This is of course Communist Party speak for "only if closely watched by the state”.

More than a few in China are convinced that the country is ideologically bankrupt and many of its people seem unsure of what values should be adopted – eastern, or western?  One of these values that is again promoted, although softened in this edition of the plan, is the “one-child” policy.  One-child is the centuries-old cultural preference for boys which led to the abandonment, abortion or infanticide of an estimated 400 million girls.

But the conventional wisdom – that China is a land of unwanted girls where many are sent overseas for adoption – is being turned on its head as urbanization increases the cost of raising male heirs where it erodes the advantage of having sons to work the fields to support parents in their old age. 

According to a recent World Bank report, gender bias favoring boys peaked in Beijing in 1995 but has fallen since then.  Additional provinces saw a similar trend in 2000, raising expectations that the country as a whole may have turned a corner with regard to females. 

The Chinese have an ancient idiom that oddly illustrates the point;  “a daughter is a warm jacket for a mother when she is old” and like all social experiments it had unforeseen consequences including the current labor shortage that could threaten the very economic system it was established to protect. With too few workers and too many old people, demographers say China faces an aging crisis. It is also confronting a marriage emergency as China’s traditional preference for sons, coupled with birth limits, has led to a skewed gender ratio and a shortage of brides.

China’s 12th five-year plan does not dwell on the one-child policy but its low-key mention seems to suggest that the old ways might not be the new way forward.   However, Liang Zhongtang, architect of the Shanxi experiment, says he thinks lifting the one-child policy would have little impact.  “I have researched China’s population policy for 30 years . . . no birth control policy has any effect: people give birth according to their wishes.”  Only if the state oversees it, of course.

Regardless of the official stance of the Communists the economic reality may help change its policies into the next decade.  

About Ed DeSheilds

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