Dondena Interviews

Suddenly in 2014, the Chinese set out under a new government policy that dialled back the decades-known one allowing, for most families, the birth of only one child. With data in hand from a recent qualitative survey of some 50 mothers with just one child, Oxford University demographer Stuart Basten visited the Dondena Centre and spoke about the effects (or lack thereof) he expects that the new policy will have.


If someone is missing your talk today, what are they missing?

What I’ll be talking about is the context of the big reforms which came out last year, which were all over the news, where the Chinese government decided that in every couple where one partner was an only child, they were allowed a license to have two children. And there was the expectation that this would create a baby boom, and this would release more children into the workforce, and the labour force, and it would decrease ageing and everything would be fantastic. And so my talk today is saying why they made that decision and why they didn’t go further, why they don’t just get rid of the one-child policy or get rid of the restrictions, and why actually, it probably won’t do much at all.

Why have they made this decision?

China has a very low fertility rate. Urban China, in Shanghai and Beijing, you would have fertility rates down below 1, kind of 0.6 or 0.7., and the lowest urban cohort fertility rates in the world. Ever. This means that China is ageing extremely rapidly.

And I imagine there is one child responsible for taking care of two parents and sometimes one or two grandparents?

Yes. So on the economic side, you have this problem with the decline in the size of the labour force, so China has already gone past the lowest turning point whereby there is no longer an excess of rural labour that will work for nothing in factories in cities, which is why “the China price,” the factory floor of the world, why their export prices, have been so successful. So that’s on the economic side.

On the ageing side, as you say, there’s this 4-2-1 problem, whereby in most urban parts of the country, now you have one couple looking after two sets of parents, sometimes even grandparents. And if you’re in a situation where it’s only the man working—the child is young, the child is growing up, the mum stays looking after the child—where there are pretty inadequate child care facilities, then you have one income supporting father, mother, father-in-law, mother-in-law, wife, and child. And so the prospect of adding another baby to that, it’s unsustainable.

And so that’s why you think this is not going to work out? Dad is already supporting six or eight people, how is he going to support a ninth?

You always have very low fertility in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Singapore, increasingly now in Vietnam, Thailand, and the reasons people give  are exactly the same reasons as in China, for low fertility. Which is, the economic pressure is too great, which is compounded by the need to take care of older people when you’ve got an inadequate care system. (That’s not the case in Japan).

But also, that child will survive now. The mortality rates are very low in China, even in rural areas, and so you can invest everything in the success of that one child. It’s the logical endpoint, to a certain degree, of many fertility decisions. When you look at the reasons people give for having a child, on an anthropological level, you can meet that with one: You want to continue the line, it strengthens the relationship, you can see something of yourself, or you just want to have children. And if you have a second or a third, you are to a certain degree diluting the resources you can point to that child.

There’s also the practical issue, that if you have a policy in cities, which for 30 years now has basically said that you can only have one child. They’ve said, “Small families are good. Small families are good. Small families are good.”

You’ve created a hurdle that you now have to un-create.

And the other practical issue is, try to find a 3-bedroom apartment in Shanghai! There’s been no call for it. Or a big car! Everything’s based around little families. Adverts have one child in them. On the TV, soap operas have one-child families, because that’s the norm.

So how does this fit in with the overall picture of your research?

Since I finished my PhD, all my work has been on low fertility and areas characterized by low fertility. And looking at the reasons why fertility falls to a very low level, but then also the consequences of that.

One of the things that frustrates me a little bit about demography is that we can become siloed. So you’re the ‘Low-Fertility Man’. Or you’re the ‘Ultra-low-Fertility in Taiwan Man’. And you just look at the causes of low fertility and consequences of it. Whereas the bigger questions have to do with a systems approach to this. I really try not to look at low fertility just as a problem in itself. I try to think of it in a broader sense, an evolution, in an anthropological sense. Why do people have children at all? Why do people have one child? What are the determinants of these different kinds of families?

For your talk today, what are your data like?

My talk today is an overall summary of four different projects. One was on fertility preferences in China—Beijing—and in Taiwan. Taiwan is kind of the control group, which didn’t have any restrictions on fertility. And those data were based on two large-scale surveys, one in Beijing and one in Taiwan. This was a mixed-methods study in the sense that we did the quantitative analysis and the surveys, but as with many quantitative studies, it reduces to the mean and you don’t really find out the individual-level decisions. So then we took those unanswered questions and went and did a qualitative study afterwards. It’s a pilot study of around 50 interviews with women who have one child in Beijing and New Taipei City and asks them about their experiences moving from one-child and what their hopes, probabilities, and expectations are in moving to a second child, and what the government may or may not do to help them to do that.

Looking broadly at your field right now, what do you like about what you see going on, what would you like to see more of?

I think the nicest thing about demography is that nobody seems to know what it is. So you can get away with doing anything that’s interesting, and you can pick from almost anywhere in the social sciences. You go to the PAA conference and it might as well be called the Social Science Conference, because it’s everything.

That’s a lot of latitude.

That is a lot of latitude. And it means you can actually have the flexibility to be able to work in teams and draw across different sub-disciplines, or sub-sub disciplines, being a social scientist. And so that kind of move away from being kind of mechanistic, you’re just a human calculator working out rates, towards integrating this better to a broader systems approach, to thinking about social science. I definitely think we need more collaborative work, and the best stuff in demography at the moment, I think, is collaborative, interdisciplinary, and mixed-methods.

The one thing that irritates me is that there’s still too much just social statistics. It’s doing a statistical exercise for the sake of it, because the data’s there and you’re really clever. And you can do this sophisticated modelling of something that, frankly, doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t really need a complex statistical model, and it tells you something we already know. But I guess this is one of the problems of specialization, that you run out of things to specialize in. All of these exercises do say something important, but they’re not an end in themselves. And I think too often in demography they are treated as the end product as opposed to saying, “Actually, we can lift this. We can speak to some broader system.”

I also think that demographers need to be—and a lot of my colleagues will disagree with this—I think that we need to be a bit more political. I think we need to be more proactive and not necessarily regain control, but be more assertive in dealing with these misguided representations, particularly of population and the environment, of immigration or birth rates among different kinds of groups. And I think we need to be a bit more forthright in the news when politicians or pseudo-environmental pressure groups are saying things which are just wrong, or take a very, very selective view of the evidence. Then I think we need to stand up and be counted, and say, “Actually, the evidence doesn’t support that at all.”

What’s the next exciting thing on your academic calendar?

So we have a big conference, our first joint conference between Oxford and the Korean Institute of Health and Social Affairs, which is in Jeju Island. So that’ll be good. I’m travelling around—conference in Vienna, to Jeju via Moscow and Seoul, then meetings in Taiwan, meetings in Beijing, and then home. And then I’ve got a holiday.

You can learn more about Stuart Basten here. You can learn more about the Dondena Seminar Series here.
















Last updated 23 February 2015 - 13:30:56