A step toward civilization (and have more children), Shanghai edition

Over the course of two weeks in China, I saw several versions of signs like this:

“A small step forward, a big step for civilization” (向前一小步, 文明一大步).

This one is posted in the old-town section of Nanxun (now a tourist attraction), naturally, above a urinal.* Invoking civilization may be overblown for the problem of men standing too far away (which didn’t seem to be especially extreme, compared to U.S. urinals), but China has a long tradition of using dramatic slogans to call citizens to higher common purpose. Here was one that struck me, in downtown Shanghai:

Every family striving to become a civilized family; everyone involved in its creation (家家争做文明家庭; 人人叁与创建活动).

This is from the Shanghai public health authorities. (No, I don’t know Chinese, but I love trying to use a dictionary, and I ask people.) The fascinating thing about that is the composition of the civilized family pictured: father, mother, two grandparents, and two children. 

Fertility rates in China are well below replacement level, as they are in other East Asian countries, meaning the average woman will have fewer than two children in her lifetime and the population will eventually shrink (barring immigration). China’s total fertility rate nationally is probably at about 1.5. In Shanghai, a metro area with some 20 million people, the norm was already one child per family before the one-child policy was implemented in 1980, and fertility has continued to fall; it most recently clocked in at a shockingly low .88 per woman as of 2008.

Reasons for ultra-low fertility are varied and contested, but likely culprits include expensive housing and education costs for children. It was reported to me informally that about half of children can go to college-track high schools instead of vocational schools, and that is determined by a standardized test administered at the end of middle school. That puts tremendous pressure on parents with middle-class aspirations. Which helps explain the extensive system of expensive supplemental private education, as promoted by this ad I saw in an upscale mall:

School advertisement, Shanghai

The website for this company promises, “Super IQ, Wealth of Creativity, Instant Memory Capacity.” How many kids are you going to send to this private program?

One of the five perfect, super-involved parents at the parent-child class is a man, which may or may not seem like a lot. Of the many people taking their kids to school on scooters, I didn’t see a lot with more than one child, and the only picture I got was of one piloted by the apparent dad (note also something you don’t see here much: schoolboy in pink shirt):

Man taking children to school, Shanghai

This recalls another probable cause of low-low fertility, the gender-stuck family and employment practices that keep women responsible for children and other care work (scooter dads notwithstanding). In conjunction with women outperforming men in college graduation rates these days (as in the U.S.), this indirectly reduces fertility by leading to delayed marriage, and directly reduces fertility by causing parents to decide against a second child.

Grandparent, parent, child, in Hangzhou

The weak system of care hurts on both ends, with people having fewer children because raising them is expensive, and people needing children to take care of old people because public support is lacking. This may be one reason why grandparents can have a positive effect on parents’ motivation to have children, as reported by Yingchun Ji and colleagues (including Feinian Chen, who hosted my visit). The fact that it is common for grandparents to provide extensive care for their grandchildren, as Feinian Chen has described (paywall), presumably helps strengthen their pronatal case.

Lots of pictures of grandparents taking care of a single grandchild to choose from. Here’s one, from the (awesome) Shanghai Museum:

Grandparent and child, Shanghai

The one-child policy ended in 2016, and couples no longer have to get permission to have a first or second child (but they do for a third or more). This change alone, although a better-late-than-never thing, may not do much to increase birth rates. That is the conclusion from studies of families for whom the policy was relaxed earlier. Sadly, although birth rates were already falling dramatically in the 1970s and the one-child policy was not responsible for the trend, the policy still (in addition to large scale human rights abuses) created many millions of one-child families that will struggle to meet intergenerational care obligations in the absence of adequate public support. (Here’s a good brief summary from Wang Feng, Baochang Gu, and Yong Cai.)

This is a challenge for civilization.

The pictures here, and a few hundred more, are on my Flickr site under creative commons license.

Americans who love the funny translations of signs in China may be in for some disappointment, as the Standardization Administration has announced plans to implement thousands of stock translations in the service sector nationwide.

10 thoughts on “A step toward civilization (and have more children), Shanghai edition

  1. Holy crap! They are going to have a huge aging problem going forward!! Why don’t we hear more about this? Surely China is not capable of being an economic superpower in the 21st century, like everyone talks about, with this demographic disaster…this is a catastrophe, and GROSSLY underreported.


  2. Ness — along with Japan, almost all of Europe, and Russia.

    Fun fact: (I’m too lazy to get the link). If the rest of the world follows the economically advanced countries natality — and there is plenty of evidence to suggest this is the case — humanity will be extinct in 300 years.


      1. Your wish is my command. look at the low fertility trend.

        I visited Africa last year. Our tour guide was Zimbabwean, in his mid-40s. During his lifetime family sizes had plummeted from more than 6 to less than three.

        We are in a completely unprecedented evolutionary situation. Never before has the female of any species had any meaningful control over her fertility. Now that women do, why must we expect they will consent to have, on average 2.1 children each?

        The available evidence strongly suggests less. The yellow trend line ends at zero.


        1. The yellow trend line ends at 7 billion in 2100. The text says, “If fertility falls by more than assumed, the world population could slightly fall over current levels to about 7 billion.”

          There is no doubt population will eventually fall if everyone follows the low fertility path. But if population had continued the way it was growing in the 1970s we would have eventually reached infinity. Demographic trends have a way of not reaching 0 or infinity.


          1. The graph ends at 2100, but time does not. Nor does the trend. If the low fertility path continues, it must end at zero, at around 2300.

            Demographic trends have never, absent extremely destructive wars or plagues, done what they are now doing during abundant peacetime.

            So the question is this: if women, taken collectively, given the choice, prefer to have fewer than 2 children each, why and when would your demographic trend not end at zero?


          2. Ha, that is a question for Zeno. In theory I guess a TFR of 1 would eventually lead to a halving of the population each generation. Takes a long time to hit zero!


  3. Actually, it doesn’t take a long time to hit zero, because humans are countable as integers. (Very clever, and funny, use of Zeno, btw)

    IIRC, if the rest of the world was to imitate the average of the West, about 1.85, then that’s how extinction shows up in 300 years. (By mid-century, Japan’s population will be 20% lower than today; by the end of the century, China’s will be 40% below it’s peak.)

    Keep in mind that the widely bandied about replacement TFR, 2.1, only applies to advanced economies. When women finally are granted their right to education, and can control their own fertility, TFR plummets far faster than anyone would have ever guessed, and in many places, replacement TFR is higher than 2.1.

    Over the last 20 years, each UN population projection is lower than the one preceding it.


  4. This is a universal trend. Even Africa now has only 2 countries with TFR’s of 6, which was average when I was born, and a number with sub-replacement levels. Including Morocco and Tunisia. In the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, among others, are now sub-replacement. Most of India is now sub-replacement, as is Banglade

    In the very long term, it’s self-correcting; more and more of each generation will be the children of people with above-average family sizes, and either genetic or cultural evolution will increase the desire for offspring.

    In the short term, the world population will never reach 9 billion and will probably be lower than at present by 2100.


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