Minefield for unwary

The Changing Population of China - Understanding Chinese Society
February 8, 2002

It is now more than 20 years since the People's Republic of China embarked on what Chinese demographer Peng Xizhe calls "the greatest demographic experiment in human history" - its effort to curb population growth through the one-child policy. The first of these books is a collection of papers by eminent Chinese demographers that assesses the impact of the programme to date. It is a wide-ranging and detailed collection that looks beyond narrow demographic concerns of population distribution and migration, mortality, fertility and family planning, age and sex ratios, marriage and family patterns, urbanisation, and ethnic minorities to include consideration of the challenges that China's population dynamics pose for social security and pension provision, education, employment and healthcare. The one slight oddity in the collection is Lui Ping-keung's paper on Chinese immigration in the Hong Kong special administrative region. While interesting, it has the air of being tacked on to this collection merely so Hong Kong is represented.

The remaining 18 papers are concise, clear and readable summaries of the topics mentioned above. They eschew excessive technical detail and do not assume too much prior knowledge, making them suitable for undergraduates in Chinese studies and social sciences, particularly geography and sociology. In addition, more than 100 tables and figures provide a wealth of statistical detail on every aspect of China's population and because the data generally cover the whole reform period to date or run from the early 1950s to the late 1990s, this material will continue to be useful for some years. The historical perspective can sometimes be taken too far, as in Ye Wenzhen's chapter on international migration patterns, which begins with the Qin dynasty (221-207BC).

The authors' Chinese perspective sometimes leads to bland generalisations about controversial periods of recent history, such as the cultural revolution, but on their specialist subjects they pull few punches about the failures and shortcomings of various government policies. On China's female population, Tan Lin and Peng Xizhe begin with the conventional statement that gender equality has been a central political goal of the post-1949 Chinese state. But by the end of the paper they state how far short of this aim China has fallen, noting that "the root of gender inequality has not been removed" and describing as "very simple-minded" the common Chinese assumption that increased economic participation will "automatically and linearly" improve women's status.

Sun Changmin on internal migration and Zuo Xuejin on employment speak up for the so-called "floating population" of temporary migrants whom the Chinese media tends to blame for many social ills, especially the rising urban crime rate. Migrants have no choice about "floating on the surface of urban society", Sun points out, given their squalid housing conditions and the systematic denial of access to basic benefits.

On the specific impact of the one-child policy, several authors discuss the excessive dependency burden of an ageing population in which an only child might have to support both parents and four grandparents alone. Xie Zhenming acknowledges that the threats to local officials' pay and jobs if too many above-quota babies were born on their patch resulted in unacceptable coercion.

Li Yongping and Peng Xizhe deal intelligently with the question of China's "missing girls", concluding that selective abortion of female foetuses is the most likely cause of China's abnormal sex ratio at birth. They also plead for understanding of the powerful preference for sons in much of Chinese society. In a society with no established welfare safety net for most people, they point out, there is "still a big difference in the real-life functions of sons and daughters", and the similar ratio of boys to girls in South Korea shows heavy-handed state intervention is not the only explanation for such an imbalance.

Norman Stockman's book fills the gap between undergraduate sociology textbooks, which pay little attention to China, and a specialist research literature on China, which is often inaccessible to students. As Stockman covers topics including rural and urban China, the individual and society, the Chinese family, economic, political and cultural power, changing patterns of social inequality, and the vexed question of social differentiation and whether civil society can yet be detected in China, he has to be concise. But he is careful to direct his audience to appropriate further reading.

One of the best features of all sections of the book is the way he treats the "1949 barrier" as an obstacle to proper understanding of the many continuities in Chinese society, from the late-imperial and republican periods to the era of Communist rule post-1949. This approach pays dividends in the sections on the Chinese family and gender issues, and on cultural power and elitism.

Warning his readers that the study of Chinese society is "more than your average minefield for the unwary", he gently disabuses us of common but misleading assumptions - for example, that Confucianism is all about society while western social thought is concerned with the individual. He has illuminating things to say about the modern PRC and Taiwanese states' rediscovery of Confucianism as a source of nationalist legitimacy for authoritarian government, and touches briefly on such topics as guanxi (personal connections), corruption, organised crime, patriarchy, ethnic identity and class conflict under market socialism.

The recent prominence of Falun Gong seems to have caught him unawares, as his section on religion describes the various qigong sects as "acceptable customs showing quintessentially Chinese ways to health". But in general, this is a book one can recommend to students with the certainty that they will not be led astray by it in any important respect, and will come away from it understanding more about the momentous changes China has experienced in recent decades.

Jackie Sheehan is lecturer in 20th-century Chinese history, University of Nottingham.

The Changing Population of China

Editor - Peng Xizhe and Guo Zhigang
ISBN - 0 631 20191 2 and 20192 0
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £55.00 and £15.99
Pages - 291

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