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Philip Bowring: Go forth and multiply

By Philip Bowring International Herald Tribune

HONG KONG South Korea has long had a habit of thinking ahead and investing heavily in the future. So its latest goal of driving up its birth rate is a signal to other countries in the region to consider the consequences of present fertility trends. Japan and much of Europe should do the same; they fret about their own woeful fertility but either take refuge in technical fixes to pension challenges or do nothing. They decline to penalize those who expect a pension but do not contribute to the workforce of the future.
For now, South Korea's population is still much younger than Japan's, which started its demographic transition a decade earlier. But unless its procreation campaign succeeds, it will be in the same position as Japan, or worse, by 2035. Japan's population is already in decline.
Whether Korea can achieve its goal, however, is quite another matter. Korean sense of racial identity may be a spur to parenthood, but it has been of scant influence in an equally ethnocentric Japan. Unusually low fertility rates now seem the reality in a neo-Confucian society that is supposed to stress family values. The fertility of East Asian urban residents is now below Europe's lowest levels.
The outcome for Northeast Asia as a whole will have a major impact on the balance of power within the region and vis--vis South Asia and Southeast Asia within two generations. While education, technology, political cohesion and resources are also crucial, demographics play a major role in power equations.
Southeast Asia is, as it always was, quite different from Northeast Asia. This can be partly traced to the greater customary equality of the sexes in matters of inheritance, economic opportunity and marriage rights, which pre-dated the arrival of Islam, Christianity and Confucius and still survives to some degree from Myanmar to Bali. The pro-male sex imbalances found in China are absent in Southeast Asia.
In the short term, too, demographics will play a huge part in determining relative rates of economic growth. That spells trouble for all of Northeast Asia and Singapore, where the percentage of working-age people is now close to its peak - the 19-and-under cohorts are getting smaller, but the number of over-60s is still modest.
Even in Thailand, already only 30 percent of the population is now under 20 years of age compared with 39 percent in Vietnam, where the sharp decline in fertility is quite recent. Thailand is a lot better off than China, Taiwan and Korea, all around 27 percent but far short of Indonesia's 39 percent, Malaysia's 42 percent and India's 43 percent. Youth is scarcest in Hong Kong - a mere 21 percent of the population is under 20 years old.
If today's outlook is grim for societies long used to imagining themselves as youthful, tomorrow's is worse. Even in Thailand, the fertility rate (births per woman of child-bearing age) is under the replacement level. As for Northeast Asia, Hong Kong is at the bottom of the table, with a rate of just 0.9, but the rest of the region and Singapore are little better. Japan's low fertility has long been known, but Korea's at 1.2 is now even lower, slightly worse than Taiwan's. All their rates are now lower than Russia's.
China's fertility is slightly higher, but its future situation is almost certainly worse than the raw number - 1.7 - suggests, due to the 15 percent excess of boys over girls in the youngest groups and to the likelihood that any easing of the one-child policy will be offset by urbanization. Fertility rates in major Chinese cities are exceptionally low - 0.8 in Shanghai.
Could it be that after centuries of being oppressed, women in these newly industrialized Confucian societies have finally acquired economic independence and are rebelling against tradition? It may not be mere coincidence that Japan and Korea, countries where the subservient role of women has long been most apparent, now have by far the lowest fertility rates, the city-states excluded. In East Asia, educated women in Singapore are showing a marked reluctance to marry. The same applies in Hong Kong, which imports brides from the mainland, and Taiwan, which imports them from Vietnam and elsewhere.
Looking ahead, Korea's problem might be temporarily relieved by reunification with the North, where despite food shortages, fertility is around 2. But otherwise, societies face either radical decline or radical change in birth rates. Even if immigration were socially acceptable in Japan and Korea, it would have to be on a massive scale - assuming that the goal is eventual population stability, Japan would need half a million immigrants a year to make up for its birth shortfall.
Demographic projections are notoriously unreliable. But the issue for East Asia now is whether it responds to some alarming facts by raising its fertility rate just as it previously responded to excessive population growth with declines that now look to have been too dramatic. Those declines helped spawn economic miracles, but the price of shifting from one extreme to the other has yet to be paid.
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