Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 463, 2 December 2021

China: 12 million missing children
Avishka Ashok

In the news
On 24 November, the Strait Times reported that the Chinese census failed to account for at least 11.6 million children born between 2000 and 2010. The gap in the number of births came to the forefront after the government released its latest statistical yearbook, which accounted for 172.5 million births in that decade. However, the 2010 census accounted for only 160.9 million births. The Politburo had earlier said: "Allowing every couple to have three children and implementing related support policies will help improve the population's structure." 
 
Issues at large
First, the case of 12 million missing children. The sudden increase in the birth rate in the 2010 census comes to light after parents enrolled their children in schools for primary education. Due to the one-child policy, that was in place from 1979 and lasted until 2015, most parents in the country refrained from documenting their children in the national registry for fear of persecution and punishment. Often, the second child would be left in rural villages with the grandparents for lack of facilities from the government.

Second, shifts in China's demographic policies. 12 million births went unnoticed in 2010 when Politburo continued to believe that the growth rate must be controlled. In 2016, the government realized the steady drop in population growth and raised the limit to two children per couple. In 2021, the government started providing many subsidies and assistance such as cash benefits, longer maternity and paternity leaves, child-rearing leaves from work and providing subsidies for the second and third child. Yet, these provisions are not attractive enough for the people at the moment.

Third, the impact of the one-child policy. The government implemented the policy as it feared that a population explosion would result in slower economic development and put a strain on the existing resources. However, the policy led to massive gender imbalance in Chinese society as most families with a patriarchal leaning opted to abort or abandon the female child. Another impact that will be apparent in the future is the shortage in the labour force. 

In perspective
First, China's failure to account for the 12 million children in the 2010 census is a big blow to the detail-oriented image of the Communist Party of China. The figure is not a minor and negligible number that can be pushed aside as human error. It will also raise questions on China's statistical capabilities.

Second, the additional 12 million children prove that the administration may only have a limited amount of control over policies such as childbirth. Despite the numerous subsidies and benefits, the country may face problems as it tries to raise its population growth in the 21st century.

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