During the Chinese New Year festivities, a relative sent an old black and white photograph to the family group chat — a three-generation family portrait taken during my third uncle’s wedding in the 1970s. Seated in the centre were the newlyweds and my grandparents. The remaining family members were lined up in three rows, with numerous adults and even more children. Among them were four grandchildren that the elders teasingly called “the four tiger cubs”, because they were each added to the family in the same Year of the Tiger.
I curiously counted the number of people in the photograph — there were 44 in total! If my parents were to take a family portrait with me, my three sisters, our spouses and our children, how many people would there be? Fifteen. My parents have five grandchildren, including two of my children.
Goodness, just one generation later, our family has shrunk by nearly two-thirds!
A recent piece of demographic news shocked the world — China’s population shrank for the first time since the Great Chinese Famine of the 1960s. This historical turning point marked the start of China’s population decline. To make matters worse, this problem is not unique to China but a common phenomenon across East Asia, cropping up after each underwent a successful economic transformation, and is bound to have far-reaching consequences.
The disappearing East Asians
South Korea appears to be bearing the brunt of the situation, with the country’s women only giving birth to an average of 0.79 children in their lifetime. This is the world’s lowest fertility rate announced last year, and the South Koreans have even broken their own record at that.
While there is an infinitesimal number in mathematics, the same does not apply to the human population, which could reach zero one day.
How worrisome is a fertility rate of 0.79? From my estimation, putting average life expectancy aside, if a couple does not have a single child, wouldn’t the country’s population be halved once a generation passes in 30 years? Imagine if this cycle repeats in the next 30 years and the 30 years after that…
While there is an infinitesimal number in mathematics, the same does not apply to the human population, which could reach zero one day. Will there come a day when there are no more South Koreans left?
On the other side of the Sea of Japan, there is no solution to the same problem either. A colleague lamented after returning from vacation in Japan: the country has become a desolate place, dotted with empty stores and houses.
Japan entered an era of negative population growth and ageing sooner than China. Nearly 30% of its population of over 123 million are above 65 years old. Experts predict that Japan’s population could drop to about 80 million in 50 years, 14 million in 200 years, and a mere 4.5 million in 300 years. If Singapore keeps up its fertility rate, it could even be more populous than Japan by then!
Just imagine what that would look like. I would think that Singapore would be happy to invite Japan to join its Forum of Small States and the Global Governance Group (3G) that speaks up for small states. Yes, you did not get me wrong: reduced to a small country, Japan would lose the ability to remain a member of the G7 along with its chances of becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.
Taiwan is worth discussing as well. Some have called it a smaller version of Japan, just that it slightly lags behind. But from my observations, because Taiwan has a lower fertility rate than Japan, the population crisis would arrive sooner rather than later. In fact, Taiwan already entered an era of negative population growth three years ago for the first time in its history. Taiwanese friends joked that in Taiwan, “life (number of new births) is worse than death (number of deaths)”. I think that the oft-repeated phase of “Taiwan’s 23 million people” of the past decade will soon become “22 million”.
Vietnam and North Korea are the only countries in the region whose population is still growing. But the growth rate has slowed to less than 1%, meaning that it would soon fall into decline.
How did East Asia’s population go from boom to bust? To find the answer, perhaps there is a need to first understand the social conditions in the past that made people willing to give birth, and identify the conditions that no longer exist today.
Having more people in a family not only entails higher productivity but also ensures personal safety as it at least reduces the chance of being bullied.
Birth-giving machines no more
It is generally believed that China’s population only grew exponentially during the mid-Qing dynasty and exceeded 400 million for the first time during Daoguang Emperor’s reign. This was due to the introduction of the more filling corn and potato crops. However, others believe that China was already a populous country, just that improvements in household registration and statistical procedures had brought to light the “invisible” population.
In fact, there is a very primitive motivation for having children in ancient times — a core reason why people are willing to give birth, although few people are willing to talk about it.
In the past when a sound legal system was yet to be established, there were many places beyond the oversight of officials, and living standards were relatively low. Having more people in a family not only entails higher productivity but also ensures personal safety as it at least reduces the chance of being bullied. Since villages and clans often fought over resources, there is strength in numbers.
In the Chinese novel Water Margin, Song Jiang led three offensives against the Zhu family over food resources. In the end, the Zhu family lost and the entire clan was decimated by the evil forces of Liangshan. While this is a fictional story, in the real world, if the women of the Zhu family were to have more children and add a few thousand more male children to the clan, they could have survived the ordeal.
In a modern society that emphasises the rule of law and is bound by the social contract, people no longer seek safety in numbers. After a few rounds of industrial revolutions, individuals are atomised and are even less motivated to have children.
Next, the concept of gender equality, or the profound impact that the decline of patriarchal societies has had on demographic trends. It mainly started with the spread of education and the entry of women into the workforce, which led to unprecedented liberation. From then on, women were no longer accessories and most certainly not birth-giving machines anymore.
Independence and better knowledge and economic status have given modern women more life options, including staying single. As for those who are still willing to get married, the age of marriage and childbirth are pushed back; add to that the easily available contraceptives, and the trend of a falling birth rate cannot be reversed. In short, women can achieve self-actualisation and are more able to say “no”, which is a great improvement in human civilisation, but the country or community will have to pay the price. There is no escaping this grey rhino, so we can only take it on.
The lack of impetus from religion is also another factor leading to East Asians having few or no children. Catholic-majority South American countries hardly deal with a lack of population, because the Vatican is firmly against abortion. Similarly, the Philippines had a population of about 10 million or so before the Second World War, but has grown to over 100 million today. The Muslims in the South of the Philippines are having a lot of babies too, because abortion is also a sin according to the Quran. Nigeria is a prominent example, as it has a population with a Muslim majority followed by Catholics, and a stunning 5.3% birth rate. Today, it is the most populous country in Africa and ranks seventh in the world.
But doesn’t Confucianism also stipulate that having no descendants is the most unfilial act of all (不孝有三，无后为大, lit. there are three unfilial acts and having no descendants is the worst)? Without debating whether the true meaning of this phrase has been misunderstood for thousands of years, the moral pressure to perpetuate the family line might have worked in the olden days, but not anymore.
I have a sense of foreboding that there will come a day when women who are willing to bring forth new life will be a rare breed.
Is migration the only solution?
In fact, there is one thing in the East Asian DNA that hinders the willingness to have children: the idea that rather than having a whole bunch of children and letting them “roam free” and thinning one’s resources, it is better to focus on nurturing just one or two and ensuring that they stand out.
The Chinese often talk of pumping their children with “chicken blood” (打鸡血, to ensure they have inexhaustible energy) — this is an example of the belief in having fewer children and “focused nurturing” with no regrets, especially among urban parents. You could probably identify with this or it may sound somewhat familiar — indeed, many ethnic Chinese parents in Singapore have the same experience, because the cultural source is the same.
But in the face of strong competition and high costs, while some people grit their teeth and carry on, some also start to question whether the struggle is worth it. They decide that they cannot afford to have children and opt out.
At the third China Population and Development Forum held in Beijing on 18 February, experts and officials warned that lifetime childlessness among women jumped from 6.1% in 2015 to nearly 10% in 2020, while the number of children a woman bears has dropped from 1.63 in 2019 to 1.19 in 2022. There were many other worrying figures at the forum, and I have a sense of foreboding that there will come a day when women who are willing to bring forth new life will be a rare breed.
What can be done? The only solution seems to be bringing in migrants.
When I was young, the British, French and German football teams were almost all made up of Caucasian players. Now, it is common to see Black players making up at least half of the team. Clearly, many European countries are relying on migrants to ease the population decline. Of course, the extreme right wing is not happy about it, and is particularly concerned about Islamification and tensions among communities. England now even has an ethnic Indian prime minister. Such heterogeneity is a sure result of an influx of migrants.
However, migration will not help China, because its base population is too large. Indeed, China can fill the gap in other countries, but no one can fill the gap in its population. It is also difficult for homogenous populations such as South Korea, Japan and Taiwan to take in foreigners on a large scale, unless they are truly desperate.
But developed international cities have an advantage. For example, Hong Kong has never had a population problem because it can open its doors at any time to bring in endless waves of people from mainland China. The only thing to watch out for is to make for easier integration, they cannot come from too many different provinces -– those from southern China are the most ideal. So, while Hong Kong might face social unrest, its population remains stable.
When Singaporeans no longer exist
As a city state, Singapore’s population has also grown over the past decades due to migrants, while generally maintaining the composition of its population and easing its ageing population. However, the difficulties thereafter are no secret, that is poor integration and increasing xenophobia.
For instance, one often hears complaints about foreigners stealing jobs and places in schools; finger pointing over the rise in property and vehicle prices; and even unhappiness over a foreign flag hanging in someone’s balcony — while it is an offence in Singapore to do so, it is also a petty matter to get angry over.
The fragility of our population is inherent and structural, including some cultural factors as mentioned above, which makes self-replacement impossible. Shutting the door to migrants and letting the population shrink in line with the extremely low birth rate, thus losing our competitiveness and reducing our economic pie, and having insufficient numbers of soldiers to protect the country — is that the future we want?
All I know is, in about 10 or 20 years, when it is my turn to sit in the centre of a three-generation family portrait, there may well be fewer than 10 people in it.
Unfortunately, few people would consider this issue of existence, and discussions usually get emotional. Honesty, rationality and far-sightedness are rare.
In the centuries to come, will there still be Singaporeans around? I have no answer. All I know is, in about 10 or 20 years, when it is my turn to sit in the centre of a three-generation family portrait, there may well be fewer than 10 people in it. And that is provided my children are willing to get married and have kids. Otherwise, there will not even be three generations.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “人口启示录——集体崩溃的东亚，还有我们”.
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