Dec 30, 2018

Dept of Unintended Consequences: China and Romania

China's CRISPR babies have hit the headlines across the world. For those who haven't caught it yet, a 33 year old biophysics researcher from China said he created the first genetically edited babies - twin girls named Lulu and Nana. It has kicked off heated debates across the world.

Even before Crispr news, there was another interesting series of news items that I almost missed. If Crispr was about quality of kids, this was about quantity - China's One Child Policy.

BBC reported:
The declining birth rate is now one of the most talked-about topics across China - and there's a real sense of crisis.
After decades spent trying to curb the population, state propaganda slogans now exhort couples to "Have children for the country", prompting criticism on social media that government policy is intrusive and insensitive.
Measures now being discussed range from extending maternity leave to encouraging people to have a second child with straight cash incentives or tax breaks. Some are even calling for limits on the number of children to be abandoned altogether.

CNN added:
An op-ed in a state-run newspaper titled "Giving birth is a family matter and a national issue too" is the latest to encourage couples to have more children, and call for official action to enable young people to start families.
The full-page column was published in the overseas edition of the People's Daily, mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. It warned that "the impact of low birth rates on the economy and society has begun to show."

New York Times had this to say:
Almost three years after easing its “one child” policy and allowing couples to have two children, the government has begun to acknowledge that its efforts to raise the country’s birthrate are faltering because parents are deciding against having more children.
Officials are now scrambling to devise ways to stimulate a baby boom, worried that a looming demographic crisis could imperil economic growth — and undercut the ruling Communist Party and its leader, Xi Jinping.

China still has 2 child limits, but that will go too by 2020, according to Bloomberg:
China’s parliament struck “family planning” policies from the latest draft of a sweeping civil code slated for adoption in 2020, the clearest signal yet that the leadership is moving to end limits on the number of children families can have.

I find China's family planning policies very interesting because it says a lot about how the world works. The world is complex and dynamic and can throw Googlies at policy makers.

I suppose in our minds there is a plot that runs this way.

You see a problem.
You come up with a solution.
You implement it.
The problem is solved.
Sometimes, it might not work, so you come up with another solution. And then it gets solved.

Figure A

But in real life it's more like this:

Figure B

You have a problem. You often understand the problem through the symptoms, pretty much the way a doctor understands your disease by the way you describe your symptoms. He might do some additional tests, which are also often indicators of underlying problem.

You device a solution, and then you implement it. And they are shown as two different steps to account for translation losses.

That action has immediate consequences. It affects the problem, and in someways modifies the problem. It has an impact on the symptoms of the problem. It has side effects - unintended consequences - and it side effects that show up after some delay. All of these can impact the problem too.

In Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt says: "The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."

Let's look at how it rolled out in the case of China's One Child Policy.


In 1970s, Chinese population was growing at 2% a year. It might not seem big, but growing at 2% a year, population will double in 35 years. If your country's population is 500 million when you are born, you will be in a country with a population of a billion by the time you are 35. Two billion by the time you are 70. The entire world population in 1950 was about 2.5 billion.

Interestingly, a few decades earlier, Mao Zedong encouraged his fellow citizens to have more children. More children meant more hands, and more hands are good for the revolution. If you think about it, that seems to be a tendency among ideologues. Romania's dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu did something similar, about whom we will see a little later. But such examples are not hard to find. We see people exhorting X or Y communities to have more children even these days. Of course, it was not the only reason why Chinese population grew in 50s, 60s and 70s. Population was growing primarily because of better healthcare.
It's not just China, many countries were worried about high population growth, including India. In 1968, Stanford University Professor Paul R. Ehrlich wrote a book called Population Bomb which was quite popular in part because it reflected the fears of many people in those times. The book began with the statement: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." RK Narayan's Painter of Signs tells the story of a man named Raman, a painter of signboards, who gets romantically involved in Daisy, a woman working in family planning. The book came in 1976. During emergency a couple of years later, Sanjay Gandhi became notorious for his forced sterilisation. China was more like Sanjay Gandhi than like RK Narayan's Daisy. It could simply go ahead and do what it wanted.

A key intellectual backer of one child policy was influenced by Donella Meadows "Limits to Growth": It's interesting because Limits to Growth is a systems thinking classics, and systems thinking encourages you to keep your eyes open for unintended consequences. But it's also interesting for other reasons. Soan Jian, the man influenced by Limits to Growth, was a scientist who designed China's submarine launched ballistic missile. A total quants guy, who determined based on numbers that 700 million is China's ideal population and the way to achieve it is to impose one child policy. In many ways it's an engineering solution to a problem revealed by mathematical analysis of population trends. It throws some light on technocratic approach to policy making.
Technology is neither good, nor bad, nor neutral: Birth control pills, contraceptives are technologies. Some would argue that they helped liberate women. There are possibly others who are against it for religious or ideological reasons. Technology by itself - as we saw in a previous post -is neither good, nor bad, nor neutral. It's true irrespective of whether you are looking at it from consequentialist perspective or deontological perspective. In China this was used as a policy tool. After the first child, a contraceptive was surgically implanted into women. More than 300 million women underwent this procedure. It joined other policy tools. Parents with more than one child had to pay penalty. They lost government jobs and children lost access to education.
The problem with some solutions is that they work: All these actually worked. Fertility rate came down. The rate of growth came down from nearly 2% to less than a percent 0.7% now. At 0.7% it will take 99 years for the population to double.

But they also have side effects, unintended consequences: Medicine works with a very complex organism called man. So, medicine is replete with stories on side effects.
When policy hits the road, it travels with culture: China is in many ways like India. Unfortunately, in China too, there is a preference for a male child. If they were going to have only one child, many decided they will have a male child. As a result, there were abortions of female fetuses. According to one count 90% of of aborted foetuses were female.And then, a large number of girls became homeless or were sent to orphanages because they were born to parents who didn’t want them.
The second order impact of male preference: What happens when there are more boys than girls? There will be more men than women. According to one count there are 34 million more men than women in China.These men are called bare branches, because they won’t bear any fruits, because they will not find any women.
When a nation becomes old: In India we talk about demographic dividend. While the rest of the world ages, while advanced countries struggle with ageing population, India will have a lot of people in working age group, and that will drive our economic growth. Because Chinese didn’t have too many children at one point, they don’t have this advantage. And they are now wondering how they will deal with their ageing population.
It's all in the mind: There's a psychological angle too. Because many had only one child, they showered excessive attention on them. Sociologists fear that a cultural time bomb is waiting to go off. The phenomenon is so widespread that there is even a term for it - Little Emperor Syndrome.
What if China didn't have this policy at all? It's hard to speculate. Given that even small changes can have a big impact in the long run, we will never know. But, there is a theory that says as countries get richer, fertility rate comes down. In 1979, South Korea had the same fertility rate as China at about 2.9 children per woman, and it dropped to 1.2 by 2008 without any one child policy.
You can't step into the same river twice: Given all the side effects of one child policy, one might have imagined that as soon as the government removed the restrictions people will jump to beget more children. But that's not what happened. So China being China is stepping on gas to encourage people to have their second child. But this time, people seem to be resisting.

Let's turn to Romania.

The Eastern European country was ruled by a dictator by name Nikloi Ceausescu. I first came to know about Ceausescu only after he died. It must have been reported in The Hindu, but I remember the images from Pranoy Roy's World This Week, and discussing that with the friends later in the school.

In the 60s, the birth rate in Romania was low at 15 births per 1000. Ceausescu wanted it to go up for ethnic and nationalistic reasons, pretty much the way Mao Zedong wanted to. So, he gave tax incentives to people to bear more children. He banned contraceptives. And most importantly, he banned abortions. It yielded the results he wanted. Romania’s birth rate shot up immediately from 15 to 40.

However, gradually, the birthrates began to fall. By seventies it had come down from 40 to 20, and by 80s it was back to old rate of about 15.

What happened?

The system fought back. People started using other forms of contraceptives. And then there was an illegal market for abortions.

There was even a bigger problem. People were having fewer children in Romania because many couldn't afford to have children. When the children were born, they didn't have the resources to bring them up. They abandoned the children. Orphanages were filling up.

But the state was poor too. Instead food, many children got blood transfusions for nutrition. In some cases, infections, including AIDS, passed on to these children.

Even at homes, children were undernourished. Big families were packed up in small houses. People hated it.

This was not Ceausescu's only bad policy. Things added up.

This is Ceausescu's last speech - on 21 December 1989. Check out his facial expressions. He didn't expect the crowd to boo and jeer and raise angry slogans.

A few days later, he was killed.

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