In the Asian media: worrying population numbers for China

Jan 29, 2022
Shanghai cityscape
(Image: Unsplash)

Elsewhere, a diplomatic rift ends, the blind spot in the climate change debate, an anti-corruption mystery, and insects on the menu.

The number 7.52 has captured media attention in Asia over the past several days. China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported there were 7.52 births per 1000 people last year – 10.6 million births in total, or 1.4 million fewer than in 2020. The country’s fertility rate (the average number of children a woman bears in her lifetime) is now 1.3, well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

China’s population growth is the lowest since 1960, the time of the Great Leap Forward famine. Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper says in an editorial that the number must worry the Chinese government. A low birth rate poses challenges — a shrinking workforce will have to support an increasing number of elderly people in a country that is not yet rich and lacks an adequate social safety net. “Yet, going by the experience of other Asian nations with low birth rates, such as Japan, Korea and Singapore, incentives are unlikely to improve birth rates by very much,” the paper says.

The Japan Times says the most ominous aspect is the changing composition of the population. China’s working-age population has fallen from 70.1 per cent of the total a decade ago to 63.3 per cent in 2020. The paper says: “Economists warn that China’s plan to become a rich and powerful country by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, is imperilled.”

But the problem is not confined to China: it extends across Asia. An opinion piece in The Bangkok Post says India’s fertility rate has dropped to 2.0 per woman. Regular columnist Gwynne Dyer says South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Bangladesh also have below-replacement fertility rates. Indonesia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka are almost there. In East Asia, the Philippines is the only big country that is still growing strongly (2.5 per cent).

Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post carried a long analysis by Paul Yip, a professor of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong. He says married couples with two incomes and no children have more money to enjoy their lives. “These couples should contribute more to the system through taxation to help those who are struggling to put food on the table,” he says.

Ugly rift ends

An ugly chapter in Thailand’s diplomatic history is nearing an end following an agreement with Saudi Arabia to restore full ties after more than 30 years of estrangement. Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha visited Riyadh during the week at the invitation of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Saudi Arabia put relations with Bangkok in the freezer more than three decades ago in retaliation for a dreadful scandal known as the “blue diamond affair”. In 1989, a Thai janitor working in a Saudi royal palace stole about $20 million worth of jewels. Thai police returned some of the jewels but Saudi officials said most of those were fake. Not returned was a rare 50-carat blue diamond. Three Saudi diplomats in Thailand were assassinated and a businessman sent to investigate disappeared in Bangkok.

Thailand has been keen to re-establish full ties with Saudi Arabia as it has been deprived of trade and tourism revenue and job opportunities for Thai workers. The Bangkok Post quoted Prayut as saying both countries will gain in areas such as tourism, energy, healthcare, trade and investment.

The blue diamond mystery remains unsolved.

Climate change blind spot

Australia’s climate change debate suffers from a very big blind spot: the developing world. Whenever activists say the world is looking at the Morrison government’s failings, they mean people in countries like Australia: well-educated, post-industrial and rich.

In the developing world, climate change action is seen as more a luxury than a necessity. For rich countries, the first step is to understand the different problems and viewpoints.

These are spelled out in a Jakarta Post comment piece by Will Hickey, an ASEAN scholar and visiting professor at Guangdong University. “The energy transition to renewables based on individual countries’ fossil fuel reduction pledges … are a pipe dream for the developing world,” he says. “The developing world runs on fossil fuels, from huge traffic jams in Bangkok and Jakarta, to coal-fired plants in Sri Lanka and India, to gas and charcoal stoves for cooking and heating through Asia to the vast oil exports of Nigeria, Malaysia and Iraq.”

Hickey says the ESG (environmental, social and governance) goals put forward by rich, developed countries are not well understood in developing or middle-income countries.

China illustrates the problem. It accounts for 50 per cent of world growth in renewable capacity yet it continues to build fossil-fuel plants throughout the developing world as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.

“Climate goals from Copenhagen, Paris and Glasgow are not clearly thought out in regards to facts on the ground in developing or southern hemisphere countries,” Hickey says. “Education levels are low and corruption high across many of these countries. As the US philosopher Benjamin Franklin said: ‘An empty sack cannot stand by itself’.”

Anti-corruption campaign raises questions

Since 2016 China’s anti-corruption body, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, each year has aired a multi-part documentary highlighting it successes. According to Wang Xiangwei, the main Beijing columnist on the South China Morning Post, the show was an instant hit with the public. “The footage brings to life the shocking and brazen scale of official corruption,” he said.

Domestically, the anti-corruption campaign defines the presidency of Xi Jinping. But Wang says: “If the documentary is aimed at augmenting the message that the anti-graft drive will reach all places, leave no stone unturned and show no tolerance to any transgressor, it has raised more questions than answers.”

An example he gave was that of Sun Lijun, a former deputy minister for public security. Sun has been charged with taking bribes, manipulating the stock market and illegally possessing firearms. But the documentary left out a crucial piece of the puzzle. Sun had served as secretary to Meng Jianzhu, who became minister for public security in 2007. Sun’s career and influence grew most quickly when Meng was the highest-ranking official in charge of law and order.

“It is hard to imagine that Sun could wield so much power and influence without Meng’s knowledge and support,” Wang writes. “But… Meng’s name is nowhere to be found and there is no public indication that Meng is implicated.”

Big bug business

Insects are a dietary staple for many poorer people in Asia and occasionally an adventurous treat for better-off folk.

But in Japan these days, raising bugs is becoming big business. The Asahi Shimbun tells us that more than 20 companies are working in the cricket business. Others are farming housefly larvae and silkworms.

A news report by staff writer Akemi Kanda says insects are attracting increasing interest as a sustainable food source. “The trend, originally aimed at bringing an ‘unusual delicacy’ to dinner tables, is being buoyed by the environmental cost of bug culturing compared to animal husbandry,” it says.

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