The Fast Shrinking Nations of the World

Arshad Shaikh examines the effects of the disastrous ‘x’ child policies followed by Japan and China who now have a precarious future and may well shrink into oblivion.

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Arshad Shaikh

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Arshad Shaikh examines the effects of the disastrous ‘x’ child policies followed by Japan and China who now have a precarious future and may well shrink into oblivion.

Deng Xiaoping, former paramount leader of China, had five children. His father had four wives and Deng grew up with one sister, two brothers and the many children of his father’s other wives. However, he is credited to have enforced the ‘one-child’ policy in China aiming to accelerate the overall task of national economic and social development.

In the 1960s, China entered its second peak birth period. It was common for couples to have up to five children. From 1962 to 1972, the average annual addition to the population was 26.69 million with the total addition reaching 300 million. By 1969, China’s population became 800 million and Deng, who became Chairman of the Chinese People Political Consultative Conference in 1978, analysed the situation concluding that there was a need to enforce strict population control considering the vast scale of the country, its weak (economic) foundation, its massive population and the low ratio of cultivated land.

China embarked on its ‘one child’ policy since 1980. A massive propaganda campaign was unleashed. People were incentivised financially to have only one child and contraceptives were made widely available. Reports point out that those who violated the policy had to face punitive fines and the state even resorted to forced abortions and sterilisations. The results were dramatic and gave an upsurge to the GDP per capita numbers, much to the glee of Chinese policymakers. The government claimed that the one child policy prevented the birth of nearly 400 million new babies and the ‘demographic dividend’ accrued by China between 1982 and 2000 accounted for 15% of China’s economic growth.

The case of Japan is no different. Its population doubled from 56 million in 1920 to nearly 112 million by 1975. However, since the beginning of the 1970s, birth rates started crashing. Actually, the fertility rate started experiencing a steep drop after World War II. The initial decline in fertility was attributed to the decision of Japanese couples to have fewer children after marriage. However, since the 70s, the rates of marriage also came down very fast. As of 2010, 11% of all Japanese women and 20% men at the age of 50 had never been married and this trend shows no signs of reversing. The table below shows how the population of China and Japan has plateaued and will eventually start declining by the turn of the 21st century.

In million1928195019751982200020052010201520502100
Population of China4745469161008126213031337137414021065
Population of Japan628211211912712812812710085



Today Japan is the oldest large country in the world by median age. Its median age is 46.3 years followed by Italy and Germany at 45.9. According to the United Nations, assuming no change in migration or fertility rates, the population of Japan would reduce to 8.5 million in 2300 and would be a mere 2 million by 2800. A lot of research has gone into the reasons for Japan’s declining fertility rates and rates of marriage. Besides the obvious reasons of more women joining the workforce than ever before that leads to delayed marriages and less children, an important finding was the job insecurity in the Japanese economy.

It is reported that about 40% of Japan’s workforce is “irregular” (working for the ‘gig’ economy) in that they do not work for companies that offer stable jobs for their entire careers. They work temporary jobs that are part-time with low salaries and no benefits. Naturally, settling down with a family and children is not easy given the extremely high cost of living in one of the richest countries of the world. The population control policies adopted by China that were touted as being the enabler for its economic success had to be quickly shelved. It ended in disaster. Replacement level fertility is the level of fertility at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next. In developed countries, the replacement level fertility requires an average of 2.1 children per woman.

Current Replacement Fertility RateSouth KoreaJapanChinaB’DeshIndiaSaudi ArabiaPakistanEthiopiaNigeria

China officially scrapped its one child policy in 2016 and allowed families to have 2 children. Within three years, they scrapped that too and said Chinese couples can now have up to three children. After the one child policy was implemented with earnest zeal, the fertility rate declined from 2.8 births per woman in 1979 to 1.5 in the 1990s. This had other ramifications – a deficit of around 40 million female babies. This was due to selective abortion especially in rural China where the male new born was preferred over the girl child. Other negative externalities like disparity in sex ratio, growing unauthorised births, waves of abandoning children, poor care and high mortality in state orphanages, the difficulties faced by the older generation as the lone child was unable/unwilling to support his parents/grandparents financially – forced the Chinese to reverse their ambitious population control programme.



Policy Czars and think tanks that endorse population control use terms such as “choosing/adjusting fertility policy based on population forecast” as if controlling the population of nations was similar to writing notes for a musical instrument. It is indeed a painful exercise to read the quotes of some of the most brilliant minds in science, technology and environment advocating population control as a means of saving the planet.

The world does not seem to learn from the catastrophic consequences of population control as a state policy. Although the Malthusian Theory of Population has been discarded, the ghost of Malthus still lingers over the mind of our intelligentsia who feel that only ‘preventive’ and ‘positive’ checks will keep a population on a level equal to the means of subsistence.

The basic postulate of contemporary economics is the scarcity of resources, whereas the fundamental premise of the Islamic approach is that the Creator has created abundant and sufficient resources for humankind, it is only a question of their correct and optimum utilisation and management that will ensure a just and egalitarian society.

The mistake committed by those who saw people only as numbers has been best described by Maulana Syed Abul A’la Maududi (in his book Birth Control). He says – “The easiest course (of action) for them was to check the further growth of their species so that they may seek their pleasure, and indulge in the luxuries and avoid the social responsibilities that follow in their wake. Now they could enjoy their earnings freely and without any fear of sharing them with anyone else…. The result was a truncated and hand-chopped atomistic family and a disintegration of the cultural values and patterns which had held the society from time immemorial”.