China’s Demographic and Ecological Conundrum

Periodically, Eco News Network features eco essays written by individuals with the environment close to their heart. The opinions expressed in these essays are those of the writers.

Here, Dr. Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison of Dancing Star Foundation share P1010492their thoughts on China’s demographic and ecological conundrum.

On a Wintry Morning in Beijing
Just over a week ago, China’s President announced a phasing out of the famed and controversial “one-child policy” across China, a strict regulation set in motion in 1979. Back then, the preferred family sizes throughout much of the country were 3 or 4 children but the Chinese government recognized that in order to avoid utter demographic and economic anarchy, even a two-child family would never equate with fiscal sustainability.

Then came the bombshell, in 1981, when China became the first nation in human history to exceed one-billion people, a marked increase from the time of her first census in 1953, when China numbered 583 million. The 1981 data sent shivers through China’s economic number crunchers. The implications were staggering because, in fact, it had been assumed that the country’s population was 900 million, not one billion. The corrected statistic instantly decreased GDP by 10%, overnight. Moreover, the future looked grim in terms of agriculture and environmental predictions.

Open60By 1993, with the population continuing to increase, despite the one-child policy (notwithstanding eleven exemptions from the rule), Chinese Communism officially endorsed the concept of “profit,” or – perceived in another guise, capitalism. There was ample reason in that year to be more optimistic about the country’s future, than back in 1981. By 1993 China’s Total Fertility Rate had dropped from a whopping 6.0 in 1960 to 2.5 children, on average, per couple. Some have recently argued that China’s population would have come down regardless of a one-child policy.

Nonetheless, for all the controversy enshrouding the one-child policy, with its forced sterilizations, increasing gender disparities in favor of males, huge numbers of rural farmers migrating to cities in search of jobs, and escalating ecological debacles – China’s built-in demographic momentum was continuing to push her human numbers higher and higher. 1993 – the year of China’s transition to capitalism – witnessed a population of 1,165,800,000, or 22 percent of earth’s human inhabitants.

It was in that year that we (Jane and I) set out to see if we could track down the actual architect of the one-child policy and gain some personal insights, noting that this policy had, by then, prevented some quarter-of-a-billion people from being born (a figure some continue to contest). As ecologists we tended to view such numbers as critical; indeed, an unprecedented humanitarian and ecological achievement.

One cold February morning, back in the mid-1990s, in a near frozen lake garden palace, seated beneath a large Ming Dynasty landscape painting, we sat with Dr. Qian Xinzhong (pronounced Dr. Chen) and discussed his remarkable career, the man upon whom the United National Population Programme had bestowed its first award for “his outstanding contribution to the awareness of population questions and to their solutions.” For its praise of this gentle mastermind of the one-child policy, the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) would be excoriated by the Reagan Administration which proceeded to derail any and all American support for the UNFPA for allegedly ignoring Chinese human rights abuses as China continued to vigorously pursue a desperately needed lowering of its domestic fertility rates. China, by trying to do what few countries had ever attempted – facing up to their ecological peril by confronting the population explosion head on – provided fuel for anti-abortionists throughout the United States.

Dr. Qian was modestly but elegantly dressed, his white hair cropped handsomely, his forehead gleaming. With some trepidation, he acknowledged, in so many words, that China was headed towards human and biological disaster if her population could not be checked. Indeed, he emanated an air of desperation, as if the very worst fears of Thomas Malthus were about to be realized.

P1010473There were ample precedents within Chinese history for such anxiety. An estimated 70 million Chinese had died from famine and civil war between 1850 and 1880, but that was nothing compared with what might happen if China were to hit 2 billion people, a very real possibility, according to the State Family Planning Commission at that time, were current TFR rates to continue unchecked.

In our book, World War III: Population & The Biosphere at the End of the Millennium (Santa Fe, NM, 1994) we wrote, following our meeting with Dr. Qian, that he embodied “the full paradox of compassion tempered by unflinching realism.” The venerable Qian died December 31st, 2009. He was almost 99 years old.

During his many decades of selfless service to his country, he had helped engender the single largest decline in total fertility rates of any nation in human history, thereby preventing much suffering, among humans, and other species.

The Phasing Out of the One-Child Policy
The People’s Republic of China currently has 1.35 billion residents, the largest number of any nation in human history, and a Total Fertility Rate (“TFR” –  the number of children per couple, on average) of 1.5, versus a world average of 2.4 (as of mid-2012). Projections for China have alternated from a conservative 1.45 billion at century’s end to the aforereferenced draconian prospect of nearly 2 billion in 2100. Whether 1.45 or 2 billion, China’s recent ambitions to create an ecological civilization within her political boundaries, as outlined by President Xi Jinping {*] strikes of a laudatory if challenging ideal.  Some might argue, a Quixotic ideal in light of last week’s news regarding the relaxation of the one-child policy. “In future, families will be allowed two children if one parent is an only child, the Xinhua news agency said.”

The political shift is a victory for human rights, and is proving immensely popular throughout China by all accounts. But the reform is based upon the alleged need for a more robust economic future, predicated on fears that – like several countries in the world with aging populations and declining work-and tax-payer sectors – China’s human geography is likely to find itself in a few decades without assured income generation at the base of her enormous economic pyramid.

With some 63% of China’s population having been – until now – greatly affected by the one-child regulatory structure, the estimated 400 million unborn Chinese, with all of their averted carbon and consumption footprints, pose a startling question: Would 400 million more consumers have been a positive, or a negative factor in computing the options for Chinese business and its ecological trickle down potentials? The nuances of this paradox appear to be key to the logic driving the Chinese Government’s fundamental shift in fertility-related thinking.
China’s Ecological Challenges
Now add the following data to the equation: The People’s Republic has as much or more to lose in terms of biodiversity and remaining wilderness than any country in history. Consider some of the nation’s “basal ecological metabolism”: nearly 18% of the country remains clad in forest, or 175 million hectares (420 million acres or nearly 700,000 square miles). Within that vast and scattered canopy exist at least 6,347 vertebrate species including 581 mammals, 1,244 bird species, 284 species of amphibian, 376 species of reptile and at least 20,000 marine species. In addition, nearly 8% of the Earth’s plant species are represented in China, or some 30,000, a third of which are endemic (i.e. found nowhere else). From the summit of Everest to the Turfan Depression, 154 meters below sea level, China’s altitudinal variations are the largest in the world, ensuring an astonishing turnover rate of species diversity across the vast arrays of China’s numerous mountain ranges, deserts, tropical, temperate and marine biota.

This grand sweep of flora and fauna is seriously imperiled. Among the country’s most critically endangered iconic species are not only the highly threatened Giant Panda, but lesser known creatures, not least of which, the world’s “greatest concentrations of endangered primate species,” including the sub-nosed monkeys and the Hainan gibbon. Others include Yangtze river dolphins and Père David’s deer, snow leopards, the Chinese alligator, and the world’s largest number of endemic pheasants, not to mention a quarter of the world’s unique Rhododendron species, according to a myriad of scientists with Conservation International and other NGOs.

With the continuing rage for economic progress, multiplied by so vast a consumer base, time is running out for Chinese ecological stabilization.

In 2008, the Yale Environmental Performance Index showed China as ranking 105 out of 149 nations that had been assessed. China fell behind Myanmar and was just barely ahead of Uzbekistan. But last year, China fell again to 116th out of 132 nations sampled. Much of this can be attributable to China’s air and water pollution issues, but also to biodiversity loss. Recognizing the gap between ecological costs and benefits, assessment and appraisal, China’s recent Twelfth Five Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development (2011-2015) yields an aggressive portfolio determined to embrace cleaner and alternative energy technologies, and far more strict emissions standards than ever before.

In a provocative Washington Post editorial in March 2011, Lester Brown asked, “Can the United States feed China?” in which he pointed out that “China requires 80 million tons of grain each year to meet just one-fifth of its needs” 310 million American consumers could find themselves competing against 1.4 billion Chinese consumers.

coming_back52Add to this scenario exhausted Chinese soils and watersheds, and shrinking aquifers, and the fact that already, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (“IUCN”) over 27% of all species throughout the country are deemed to be threatened, and a series of dire futurist scenarios necessarily emerge for China.

Then there are the animal rights considerations. By 1990, China actually surpassed the U.S. as the largest “meat producer” in history. The animal rights situation across China is disastrous. As described in our Forbes conversation with Dr. Peter J. Li, Associate Professor of East Asian Politics at the University of Houston-Downtown, says Li, the country has “lagged behind the industrialized nations in animal protection law-making for more than 180 years….[and] Never in its 5,000 year history did China ever raise and keep hundreds of millions of wildlife species in captivity as it is today.” Such transgressions against traditional Chinese ethics are strictly driven by demographics: the vast number of consumers competing for an ever shrinking resource base.

All of the biological indicators suggest a ruinous link between demographic pressure and Chinese biodiversity loss. Among those nations with the largest number of threatened and endangered plant and animal species, China is one of the worst, ranking 14th and 7th from the bottom, respectively. And while the country has focused considerable attention on the prospects of ecotourism, it has done so without any overall sustainability plan.

An Ecological End-Game
According to the World Bank, China’s per capita income as of 2012 was US $6,091, ranked 90th in the world. That economic growth, from rags towards riches (a current GDP of well over US$7 trillion) coincided (perhaps a mere coincidence, though we think it no coincidence) with the enactment of the one-child policy.

Now, as a new and welcome mindset is celebrated in a nation gearing up for more babies (how many more is unclear), the International Monetary Fund has warned of a looming “economic crisis in China;” that it may “fall off the rails and take years to recover” according to Tom Holland writing for Monitor, and published in the South China Morning Post Business section.

Hence, the end-game: What continues to trouble a hazy economic and demographic future in China is the haunting memory of Dr. Qian’s stark ecological premonitions. Once a species goes extinct, it is forever. There is no escaping the ineluctable correlations between population growth and its human consumptive footprints, and widespread biological Apocalypse.

How China can commandeer a most fragile balancing act of more people, more economic gain, and more environmental protection will serve as the ultimate proving ground for whether our species can finally come to terms with the reality of our ecologically-pernicious omnipresence and what we are truly prepared to do about it.

-Michael Charles Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison/Dancing Star Foundation

The authors are contributors to Eco News Network. The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the writers.

About the Authors
Dr. Michael Charles Tobias ( is a global ecologist whose field research has taken him to over 90 countries. He has worked in ecological antMichael_in_California_Sanctuary[6]hropology, bio-cultural ethics, and large-scale biodiversity conservation; eco-restoration, the saving of endangered species, animal rights, and has a particular focus upon the future prospects for biological evolution. His nearly 50 books (non-fiction as well as fiction) and more than 170 films have been read and broadcast throughout the world. Recipient of the “Courage of Conscience Prize” and a myriad of other awards and distinctions, Tobias has been a Professor at numerous universities and is the President of the Dancing Star Foundation.


Jane Gray Morrison is an author, ecologist and filmmaker who has done field work in dozens of countries, productions for many networks around the world, andjanemorrison3.jpgv2.jpgklein_1 written numerous books, including God’s Country: The New Zealand Factor, Donkey: The Mystique of Equus Asinus, and Sanctuary: Global Oases of Innocence ( She has served as a Director on several arts organizations, and is the Executive Vice President of Dancing Star Foundation. Among her recent film productions are the PBS feature documentaries, No Vacancy, and Hotspots (


The authors are contributors to Eco News Network. The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the writers.

Photos credits: All photos provide by and Copyright M.C.Tobias

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