How China Miscalculated Its Way to a Baby Bust - Kanebridge News
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How China Miscalculated Its Way to a Baby Bust

Tue, Feb 13, 2024 8:56amGrey Clock 7 min

China’s baby bust is happening faster than many expected, raising fears of a demographic collapse. And coping with the fallout may now be complicated by miscalculations made more than 40 years ago.

The rapid shift under way today wasn’t projected by the architects of China’s one-child policy—one of the biggest social experiments in history, instituted in 1980. At the time, governments around the world feared overpopulation would hold back economic growth. A Moscow-trained missile scientist led the push for China’s policy, based on tables of calculations that applied mathematical models used to calculate rocket trajectories to population growth.

Four decades later, China is aging much earlier in its development than other major economies did. The shift to fewer births and more elderly citizens threatens to hold back economic growth. In a generation that grew up without siblings, young women are increasingly reluctant to have children —and there are fewer of them every year. Beijing is at a loss to change the mindset brought about by the policy.

Births in China fell by more than 500,000 last year, according to recent government data, accelerating a population drop that started in 2022 . Officials cited a quickly shrinking number of women of childbearing age—more than three million fewer than a year earlier—and acknowledged “changes in people’s thinking about births, postponement of marriage and childbirth.”

Some researchers argue the government underestimates the problem, and the population began to shrink even earlier.

Following the data release, researchers from Victoria University in Australia and the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences predicted that China will have just 525 million people by the end of the century. That’s down from their previous forecast of 597 million and a precipitous drop from 1.4 billion now.

“Our forecasts for 2022 and 2023 were already low but the real situation has turned out to be worse,” said Xiujian Peng, a senior research fellow at Victoria University who leads the population research in Melbourne.

China’s fertility rate is approaching one birth for every woman , less than half the 2.1 replacement rate that keeps a population stable. In the late 1970s, the fertility rate hovered around 3.

At the time, China was coming out of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and about to embark on economic reforms. The country’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, and other officials became alarmed when a group of scientists told them that unless they started restricting births, China would have more than four billion mouths to feed in a hundred years.

An essay by some of the scientists published by the official People’s Daily in early 1980 suggested China’s search for a response to overpopulation “points to bringing the fertility rate down to 1…each couple having only one child.”

That fall, China started enforcing the one-child policy nationwide—but the calculations had missed some crucial factors.

Population fears

China wasn’t the only country worried about overpopulation at the time. The rapid rise in the global population in the 1960s and ‘70s prompted fears that humanity would reproduce faster than food production could rise, an idea argued nearly two centuries earlier by economist Thomas Malthus.

Chinese officials were increasingly reviving scientific research after the Cultural Revolution. While social scientists had been persecuted by Mao’s Red Guards, others doing work related to the military had been partly shielded.

The group included Song Jian, a protégé of the father of China’s atomic-bomb program and one of China’s top scientists working on satellites and rockets. Song had studied in Moscow, where he got advanced degrees in a branch of mathematics known as control theory and in military science. Military officials sent him to a launch site for rockets and satellites in the Gobi Desert to escape the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

Song, who eventually became China’s senior cabinet member heading science and technology, is now 92. He didn’t respond to requests for comment sent to the State Council and the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

In 1975, Song had been part of a Chinese academic delegation visiting the University of Twente in the Netherlands, where he got to know a Dutch mathematician, Geert Jan Olsder. Three years later, the two met a second time, at a conference in Finland.

Olsder, now in his 80s, said he talked about how his research with other mathematicians had been inspired by the warnings about finite global resources and how mathematical models could be applied to birthrates.

Song spoke with the others in fluent English and showed a clear interest in mathematical modelling, Olsder wrote in an email. If the two hadn’t met, he said, he’s sure that some kind of population policy would have started in China, but perhaps a little later. “I feel like a domino stone in a long series of such stones,” he wrote.

Song refined his modelling over the next few years, and with a team of scientists began calculating how different fertility rates could affect China’s population size. In late 1979 he began to present officials with reports based on their modelling. He calculated that, at a constant fertility rate of three babies for every woman, China’s population would hit 4.26 billion by 2080.

With his computer-assisted mathematical models and political connections, Song caught the attention of top leaders. He argued that rapid population growth would prevent China from becoming a rich, modern country, said Susan Greenhalgh, an anthropologist at Harvard University who has written books about the one-child policy.

“He used a frightening narrative of a coming demographic-economic-ecological crisis to persuade people,” she said.

To ward off skepticism, officials said China could switch gears if births dropped too much. “In 30 years, the current problem of especially dreadful population growth may be alleviated and then [we can] adopt different population policies,” the Communist Party said in an open letter in 1980.

Within a little more than a decade, the fertility rate had dipped below the replacement rate. The cohort of young women was still massive, which kept the population growing. But the number of newborn girls was quickly dwindling.


As the decades passed, a growing number of demographers and economists called out the policy as outdated and flawed. China’s fertility rate would have gone down on its own as life expectancies rose and economic conditions improved, they say.

One factor missing from Song’s population math was human behaviour. The government’s sometimes brutal enforcement, including forced abortions and sterilisations, as well as decades-long propaganda about the benefits of having a small family , left a lasting one-child mindset. The modelling also failed to take into account the traditional preference for sons. If couples could only have one child, they would prefer to have a boy.

Young women are now at the core of China’s demographic dilemma. They are increasingly reluctant to have children—and there are fewer of them every year.

Greenhalgh, the Harvard anthropologist, said that the women growing up under the one-child policy were raised in line with Beijing’s goals of a smaller but what it called “higher-quality” population: well-educated, savvy and independent. “These women are not going to accept going back to the family to be housewives,” she said.

Apart from cultural and social changes, Song’s model hadn’t taken into account economic forces, such as the enormous migration flows to cities unleashed by Deng’s reforms, which played a bigger role than anyone had imagined in pushing down fertility rates, researchers have said.

Zuo Xuejin, a retired demographer who is leading the research team at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, sounded alarms about demographic implosion more than a decade ago, saying the conditions that may have warranted birth-restriction measures had all faded away.

“For many years overpopulation was China’s major concern. It was difficult to convince the government and the public that China will have the problem of fast decline and aging of the population,” Zuo wrote in an email.

Song has said he believed it had been a good call. China had successfully defused the bomb that could have led to a “population explosion,” he wrote in a 2010 essay published by the University of Jinan, his alma mater. “Zero growth [in population] is the destiny of modern mankind and an urgent task for contemporary China,” Song wrote. He estimated China’s population wouldn’t start shrinking until after 2035. He was off by more than a decade, with official data showing the drop starting in 2022.

Beijing has said the policy prevented 400 million births, a claim it has often put forth as a kind of Chinese gift to the world, including at the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen. Demographers have disputed the figure, saying China’s fertility rate would have gone down on its own as economic conditions improved.

Demographer scramble

Even when Beijing dropped the one-child policy in 2015, leaders didn’t abolish birth restrictions altogether. Instead, it just pivoted to a two-child policy. Now, Beijing is urging people to have three, trumpeting the need to return to a “birth-friendly culture.”

Entrepreneurs, economists and demographers have tried to convey the idea that China needs more babies .

James Liang , co-founder and chairman of travel service provider Group and a research professor of economics at Peking University, co-founded YuWa Population Research Institute, a private think tank focused on demographic and public policy analysis.

Liang estimated that China needs to devote 5% of its gross domestic product—roughly equivalent to its education spending—on direct subsidies to promote births and lower the costs of raising children in order for the fertility rate to recover to 1.4, the average rate of advanced economies. His company gives its long-term employees an annual cash bonus of 10,000 yuan ($1,406) for each of their children until they are 5 years old.

Demographers are trying to catch up on the rapidly falling births. The United Nations’ population predictions for China, which were based on the country’s 2020 census and assumed a fertility rate of 1.19, are already out of step with reality.

Patrick Gerland, head of the U.N.’s population estimates and projection section, said their computing tries to capture long-term trends and isn’t made for rapid changes. He agrees with other researchers that put China’s fertility rate closer to 1.0.

“In the case of a country like China where the fertility from one year to the next year has been changing so fast, we’ll have smaller population [projections] than what we had expected two years ago,” he said. The U.N. plans to update its forecasts in July.

Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a critic of China’s birth restrictions, has long argued the situation is even worse than official data suggests. Yi believes China’s population actually started shrinking years ago, based on birth estimates pieced together from other available data, such as school enrolment and the number of vaccines for newborns.

“All of China’s population policies for decades have been based on erroneous projections,” Yi said. “China’s demographic crisis is beyond the imagination of Chinese officials and the international community.”

Once a generation of young people has made up their minds, it’s hard to change them, said Cai Yong, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It’s possible fertility rates could now increase with official messages and policies promoting bigger families to a newer generation, said Cai, but “if it’s going to happen, it’s not going to happen in the short term.”


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Some chocolatiers and coffee makers say they will have to pass on the extra cost to consumers

Sun, Apr 14, 2024 4 min

Global prices for cocoa and coffee are surging as severe weather events hamper production in key regions, raising questions from farm to table over the long-term damage climate change could have on soft commodities.

Cultivating cocoa and coffee requires very specific temperature, water and soil conditions. Now, more frequent heat waves, heavy rainfalls and droughts are damaging harvests and crippling supplies amid ever growing demand from customers worldwide.

“Adverse weather conditions, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, have played an important role in sending several food commodities sharply higher,” said Ole Hansen , head of commodity strategy at Saxo Bank.

The spikes in prices are a threat to coffee and chocolate makers across the globe.

Swiss consumer-goods giant Nestlé was able to pass only a fraction of the cocoa price increase to customers last year, and it may need to adjust pricing in the future due to persistently high prices, a spokesperson said.

Italian coffee maker Lavazza reported revenue of more than $3 billion for last year, but said profitability was hit by soaring coffee bean prices, particularly for green and Robusta coffee, and its decision to limit price increases.

Likewise, chocolatier Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Spruengli said in its 2023 results that weather and climate conditions played a major role in the global shortage of cocoa beans that led to historically high prices. The company had to lift the sales prices of its products and said it would need to further raise them this year and next if cocoa prices remain at current levels.

Hershey ’s chief executive, Michele Buck , said in February that historic cocoa prices are expected to limit earnings growth this year, and that the company plans to use “every tool in its toolbox,” including price hikes, to manage the impact on business.

In West Africa, where about 70% of global cocoa is produced, powerhouses Ivory Coast and Ghana are facing catastrophic harvests this season as El Niño—the pattern of above-average sea surface temperatures—led to unseasonal heavy rainfalls followed by strong heat waves.

Extreme heat has weakened cocoa trees already damaged from heavy rainfall at the end of last year, according to Morningstar DBRS’s Aarti Magan and Moritz Steinbauer. The rain also worsened road conditions, disrupting cocoa bean deliveries to export ports.

The International Cocoa Organization—a global body composed of cocoa producing and consuming member countries—said in its latest monthly report that it expects the global supply deficit to widen to 374,000 metric tons in the 2023-24 season, from 74,000 tons last season. Global cocoa supply is anticipated to decline by almost 11% to 4.449 million tons when compared with 2022-23.

“Significant declines in production are expected from the top producing countries as they are envisaged to feel the detrimental effect of unfavourable weather conditions and diseases,” the organisation said.

While the effects of climate change are severe, other serious structural issues are also hitting West African cocoa production in the short- to medium-term. Illegal mining poses a significant threat to cocoa farms in Ghana, destroying arable land and poisoning water supplies, and the problem is becoming increasingly relevant in the Ivory Coast, according to BMI.

The issues are being magnified by deforestation carried out to increase cocoa production. Since 1950, Ivory Coast has lost around 90% of its forests, while Ghana has lost around 65% over the same period. This has driven farmers to areas less suited to cocoa cultivation like grasslands, increasing the amount of labor required and bringing further downside risks to the harvest, the research firm said.

The Ivory Coast’s cocoa mid-crop harvest—which officially starts in April and runs until September—is expected to fall to 400,000-500,000 tons from 600,000-620,000 tons last year, with weather expected to play a crucial role in shaping the market balance for the season, ING analysts said, citing estimates from the country’s cocoa regulator. Ghana’s cocoa board also forecasts a slump in the harvest for this season to as low as 422,500 tons, the poorest in more than 20 years, according to BMI.

Neither regulator responded to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, extreme droughts in Southeast Asia—particularly in Vietnam and Indonesia—are resulting in lower coffee bean harvests, hurting producers’ output and global exports. Coffee inventories have recovered somewhat in recent weeks but remain low in recent historical terms. Robusta coffee has seen a severe deterioration in export expectations, while Arabica coffee is expected to return to a relatively narrow surplus this year, said Charles Hart, senior commodities analyst at BMI.

The global coffee benchmark prices, London Robusta futures, are up by 15% on-month to $3,825 a ton. Arabica coffee prices have also surged 17% over the last month to $2.16 a pound in lockstep with Robusta—its highest level since October 2022. Cocoa prices have more than tripled on-year over these supply crunch fears, and risen 49% in the last month alone to $10,050 a ton.

“Cocoa trees are particularly sensitive to weather and require very specific conditions to grow, this means that cocoa prices are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events, such as drought and periods of intense heat, as well as the longer-term impact of climate change,” said Lucrezia Cogliati, associate commodities analyst at BMI.

Cogliati said global cocoa consumption is expected to outpace production for the third consecutive season, with intense seasonal West African winds and plant diseases contributing to significant declines.

Consumers hoping for a return to cheaper prices for life’s little luxuries in the midterm may also be in for a bitter surprise.

“There is no sugarcoating it—consumers will ultimately be faced with higher chocolate prices, products that contain less chocolate, and/or shrinking product sizes,” Morningstar’s Magan and Steinbauer said in a report.

“We anticipate consumers could respond by searching widely for promotional discounts, trading down to value-based chocolate and confectionary products from premium products, switching to private-label from branded products and/or reducing volumes altogether.”

The record-breaking rally for cocoa and coffee is likely more than just a flash in the pan, according to Citi analysts, as adverse weather conditions and strong demand trends are likely to support prices in the months ahead. The U.S. bank estimates Arabica coffee futures in a range of $1.88-$2.15 a pound for the current year, but said projections could be lifted if the outlook for 2024-25 tightens further.

At the heart of it all, climate change is set to play a major role, as the impact of extreme weather events could exacerbate the pressure on cocoa and coffee supplies, according to market watchers.

“I don’t expect prices to remain at these levels, but if we continue to see more unusual weather as a result of global warming then we certainly could see more volatility in terms of cocoa yields going forward, which could impact pricing,” said Paul Joules, commodities analyst at Rabobank.