China’s business & start-up incubators are adopting different models than those popularized from Silicon Valley and other mature, Western ecosystems. The drivers developing a different incubator model are rooted in a different local context, but the successful application of these models can have global implications.
By Incubator I mean…
I’ve been tracking the term ‘incubator’ on Twitter since last year and am amazed not only by the number of incubators that have sprung up all over the world, but also how many diverse and loose definitions of ‘incubator’ there are.
By ‘incubator’ I do not just mean co-creation space, or consolidated back-office support, or start-up competitions, or a crowd-sourced website of projects, or classes on pitching and writing business plans.
By ‘Incubator’ I DO mean in addition to the above, tactically helping to build businesses through to sustainability by bringing in the needed people/partners, asking the right questions & molding the business model, coming out with a working product/service & organization, and utilizing ready-made launching platforms which include financing, marketing and/or retail/distribution channels.
THE RISE OF INCUBATORS AS A CULTURAL PHENOMENON
It is important to first understand the cultural and social significance of incubators in western society to help us gain a comparative perspective on how China incubators will impact a new generation.
The reason why the start-up incubator is enjoying success and widespread popularity in our time and not before has to do with one unique occurrence: The rise of the highly educated, freelance individual. While two other factors have also been vital for the popularization of incubators – 1) macro economic demand for innovation competition, and 2) an abundance of investment capital looking for alternative asset classes and the development of mezzanine financing options – only the rise of the highly educated, freelance individual is unique to this generation and unique to the rise of the incubator.
Tracking the emergence of the highly educated, freelance culture
The expansion of a highly educated mass population happened in western society and North America with education reforms and a greater access to higher education in the Post-War era. The popular expansion of the North American freelance culture (as documented by Douglas Holt in ‘Cultural Strategy’) began in the 90’s as we experienced the early 90’s recession and then accelerated as corporations and industry underwent an intense period of outsourcing, thus shifting us away from the concept of lifetime employment.
And so since the 90’s we’ve witnessed the emergence of a highly educated, freelance generation. These individuals, being more creative, independent, and autonomous, have been building a new proposition of economic pay-off that rewards ingenuity and seeks not a steady pay-check, but periodic bulk payments that allow for more pivots in a person’s freelance-style career. Additionally, as an economy built on high-educated, freelance culture demands greater creativity, integrated thinking capacity, and greater specialization, these individuals seek an actionable, and reliable form of collaboration that will see their unique capabilities and ideas properly utilized.
It’s therefore understandable why it is this generation, a highly educated and freelance group, which would construct and consider start-up incubators a viable and important vehicle for long-term freelance achievement, and career success. In fact, as chronicled by GigaOm, the first popular wave of incubators emerged over 10 years ago, during the Dot-Com boom, when high-educated freelance culture hit its first period of maturity.
Our current cultural legacy: the Silicon Valley incubator model
The current wave of incubators like the iconic YC, TechStars, and 500 Startups are a product of A) a much more networked, collaborative culture, learned and reinforced by social media’s dominance in our society, B) further maturation and refinement in the venture capital/private equity apparatus, plus C) the justifiable fixation on timelines and incubation processes specifically catered to technology and digital venture types.
The Silicon Valley incubator model is built to graduate start-ups within 3 months of incubation. Fast ideas, fast iteration, fast testing, fast scaling. High independence, high autonomy. This is the incubator’s cultural legacy we’ve inherited from the success of Silicon Valley and American-style venturing from a generation of highly educated, freelance individuals.
There is a growing perception that the Incubator can become a new model for graduate school. I too observe that this generation is beginning to perceive incubators as having the same cultural significance as graduate schools. Indeed, these are important implications for how a new generation of young Americans and global citizens will classify ‘education’, fit for their future world.
instituteB - a Canadian Incubator reframing as a new kind of 'skool'.
But with this understanding of the cultural role of the Incubator for a highly educated, freelance society, the Incubator finds a different role in China and is therefore developing into a different creature.
A NEW FORMATION: CHINA INCUBATOR AS ENTERPRISE
Over the last year, a number of China incubators have either reformed, or newly emerged, as professional enterprises, away from the classic western incubator model that just serves as a prototyping platform for independent start-ups. China Incubator Enterprises are acting more like niche early-stage private equity acquisition groups – without the private equity.
Incubator Enterprises characteristic #1: A longer timeline with greater vested interest.
These China incubators are elongating the incubation period, bringing the start-up more permanently into the incubator, well beyond the traditional 3-month timeline. Often times the gestation period is dependent upon the start-up’s complexity and development needs. Many times incubators will not graduate a start-up until there is a fully sustainable business model, and there is more to show than just a prototype product.
This is taking a page out of more established corporate innovation processes, like the one system made famous by 3M. Here, what is provided is not only space and supplies for a team to get their idea off the ground, but the host organization also takes a lead responsibility in filling the missing team and functional gaps such as finance, marketing, project management, and strategy. In this way the incubator graduates not only entrepreneurs with a product and some mentoring, but instead a founding team, fully equipped to grow from start-up to small business.
Innovation Works, an incubator I’ve written about before, was one of the very first China Incubators and still one of the most famous. Created by Ex-Head of Google China, Li Kai Fu, they incubate tech start-ups, but bring these companies in-house and build out fully functioning teams around them. They usually graduate only after a product is tested and there are investors lined-up to take it to the next step. This whole process normally takes much longer than 3 months.
Incubator Enterprises characteristic #2: Cut out start-up pitching, instead cultivate investor expectations.
Whereas the mark of a great incubator in western countries is giving the start-up a chance to pitch to a packed room of potential investors, China Incubator Enterprises instead opt to act as agents, selecting the right investor introductions and brokering the right deal.
This deal making has much to do with the fact that each incubator has pre-existing relationships with a set investment community or network, usually specializing in one specific area of interest. In some cases, an incubator’s inception is the direct result of a pre-existing fund’s desired investment objectives, looking to develop investment opportunities.
With the Incubator Enterprise knowing the investor preferences and objectives so well, there is little need for pitching but instead collaborating with the investors on their investment expectations and involvement right from the outset. In this way, the start-up, and the investor(s) are developed from inception to be the perfect partners.
Xindanwei has been the poster-child for Co-working spaces in China since its launch in 2009, with a very distinct and strong open community culture. Last year Xindanwei expanded to build Xinchejian (New Garage), a specialized program for the Open Hardware, hacker and maker communities. Xinchejian provides specific events, workshops, machining tools & technology, plus prototype product exhibitions; all crucially needed to grow this emerging community. What is more, this special unit has developed its own network of specialized partners and investors, people who have a specific interest in funding and prototyping co-hacked gadgets. These partners coming in at the very earliest stages and develop ideas together.
Incubator Enterprises characteristic #3: Find industries to fill beyond tech. The emergent Incubator Enterprise, with the intention of incubating longer, more thoroughly, and molding investor expectations from the beginning, find greater capabilities to nurture new business models. This is proving powerfully applicable for capturing the new opportunities emerging from China’s diversifying economy needs.
Each Incubator Enterprise, in capturing its industry specialization, is also customizing their incubator to fit the specific needs of that industry’s start-up needs and also that industry’s investor requirements. With this evolutionary approach, Incubator Enterprises from different industries will have different incubation timelines and boast different incubator component strengths. It is only in customizing the incubator format can the incubator fill the needs existent beyond tech.
Transi.st is an incubator that seeks to develop tech that has direct impact on social good. Shifting from the ideology that a start-up’s primary path leads to IPO, Transi.st chooses its China incubation projects first for its scalability in social impact.
Yuenfen-Flowhas constructed itself as the nexus between tech, business, art, and sustainability. Boasting its offering of methodologies such as IDEO’s Human Centered Design, Yuenfen-Flow chooses its projects for their creativity and the merging of artistic and technical form and function.
Jue.io is perhaps one of the most exciting examples of an Incubator Enterprise, specializing in manufacturing incubation. Jue,io seeks to attract creative youth culture products; from new iPhone case concepts to innovative RFID key chains for offline social networking. Jue.io was set up to cater to the needs, expertise and interests of its founding investor, who comes from the manufacturing industry. Boasting a vast network of OEM manufacturer relationships, Jue.io offers not only team, product development, and funding for the right manufactured product idea, but also the right manufacturing and distribution partners. Jue.io’s incubator capabilities are specialized for the needs of the industry it serves.
Localized industry contexts force incubators to structure differently
It is easy to see that these incubator innovations come from the different industry forces present in China’s very different economy. As chronicled above, traditional western incubators are a product of a driving macro demand for innovation competition, a mature alternative asset-class investment community, and a highly educated, freelance generation. China does not strongly possess any of these forces. The incubator was started in China not as a reaction to competition need, but with the intention of leading social change. It found itself in an economy with a very immature investor community, and within a generation and culture that is not overtly highly educated nor freelance. And so in order for the incubator to survive, flourish and add value in a different industry context, the China incubator has had to evolve, with a longer timeline, a greater vested interest, a different approach to cultivating investors, and filling opportunities in many other industry fields.
These non-traditional forces are not unique only to China. We are seeing the incubator evolve into Incubator Enterprises in other fields that require adaptation for distinct requirements. In Canada, an Incubator Enterprise exists named InstituteB, a specialty incubator focused on sustainability start-ups and cultivating particular skills for the sustainability field with special relationships with sustainability-focused investors. They also bring in start-ups for a long timeline, build thoroughly, and graduate only with the right investor already in place.
CHINA INCUBATOR’S ROLE FROM A CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE
And so as people have alluded to the Western incubator as a new form of graduate school for a highly educated, freelance generation, what is the meaning of the emergence of China’s Incubator Enterprises to this new generation of Chinese?
I would offer a suggestion that China’s Incubators act more like the equivalent to an after-school program, or a special summer program, or an extra-curricular sports team. What I mean is that it is within these kinds of environments that many Western-raised children first developed specialized skills, and first learned how their unique skill integrated into a larger team. More importantly it is within these extra-curricular program that many talented youth first developed passions for personal hobbies and interests, and added very important components to their developing self identity.
I feel the China Incubator’s cultural role is providing a similar, and vital service, albeit not extra-curricular, but full-time.
Leading edge Chinese youth, with newly constructed identities and the beginnings of unique talent, are in need of space to refine and sharpen what raw ability they have. Incubators become the place this cohort of creative talent can deepen who they are and sharpen their skill.
This being still one of the earliest generations of Chinese creative talent, these innovators have not enjoyed as comprehensive an upbringing as the young talent in other mature societies. Therefore Chinese incubators are calibrated to allow participants to specialize on one creative ability, while the incubator fills the other skill gaps. As a consequence, the incubation period grows longer; to not only allow the business to mature, but also the creative talent powering it.
Incubators in China can develop in this way because China creative talent is still so rare and offers the great potential for highly unique value creation. As the competitive pressures in China continue to rise, the value proposition to incubate talent and new China business solutions is something no investor can ignore.
It is within these incubators that a new generation of Chinese creative talent is realizing that there are other options to their future career and life path. For the first time China’s creative middle class sees a viable, and socially acceptable path to having one’s own ideas & inventions realized.
The new Chinese incubator enterprises are in part instigating new culture, and may become the modus operandi for a new creative class of Chinese youth.
In the past year, I’ve met with scores of new people and talked about how the research & consulting company I help lead, China Youthology, has also launched a non-profit platform to directly engage youth called Open Youthology. The most common response I get is “Are you an NGO?”
It puzzled me why so many people couldn’t see the logic: investing directly in what’s good for the community, will secure what’s good for business. I felt a little anxious; why were we the only ones doing this? Are we totally wrong? How come there wasn’t anything to support what we knew in our gut was right?
The concept of Shared Value recognizes that societal needs, not just conventional economic needs, define markets. True long-term, sustainable, and competitive economic value is reaped when business aligns with societal needs. Therefore the purpose of Capitalism and the corporation must be redefined as creating shared value, not just profit per se. A narrow concept of capitalism has prevented business from harnessing its full potential to meet society’s broader challenges, but by broadening our perspective and adopting a Shared Value mindset, we recognize that the competitiveness of a company and the health of the communities around it are closely intertwined. A business needs a successful community, not only to create demand for its products but also to provide critical public assets and a supportive environment.
The article laid out paragraph by paragraph, with numerous supporting case examples, everything my partners and I believed and are trying to build at China Youthology. I looked to see who had authored such amazing research: Mark R. Kramer, senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Michael E. Porter, Harvard Business School professor, and one of the greatest business thinkers of our generation.
Read the HBR article if you haven’t already, or take a quick first glance by watching this talk by Michael E. Porter about “Creating Shared Value”.
This article reaffirmed to us that building Open Youthology was not wrong, we were just early.
In fact, the concept of Shared Value isn’t that new. Porter’ Shared Value Creation codified the business’ new role in a Shared Economy, but the other half of this equation is Shared Value Consumption, which is better known as Collaborative Consumption. Collaborative consumption is based on the concept that access to goods and skills is more important than ownership of them.[i] People are building collaborative consumption economic models based on sharing, swapping, bartering, trading or renting access to products as opposed to ownership.[ii]
Fast Company thoroughly explains and showcases the world of Shared Value Consumption in an April 2011 article, “The Sharing Economy”. And you can watch Rachel Botsman give a paradigm-shifting TEDtalk titled “The Case for Collaborative Consumption” during the May 2010 TEDxSydney conference.
We must enlarge our purpose for creation to help us discover what really needs our attention. And we must enlarge our definition of consumption so that what we already have can best serve the most of society’s needs.
I believe that Shared Value is the next frontier of Globalization and the true motive behind Free Trade.
Free Trade is built on the law of Comparative Advantage: everyone benefits when everyone can offer what they do best and most efficiently.
Shared Value Creation and Consumption is taking this one step further: We now recognize that by ignoring externalities, especially negative externalities, we are in fact ignoring or even building barriers to other forms of value creation that in the end would help the entire societal ecosystem.
The Shared Value Economy is shifting us away from only thinking about assets, capital and traded goods to repositioning Capitalism for what the law of Comparative Advantage originally intended: the holistic betterment of society.
These concepts of Shared Value Creation and Shared Value Consumption are currently early adopter trends, enjoying niche acceptance and having their first initial success cases. But what will allow the Shared Value Economy to gain mass adoption, and benefit an entire society?
Looking at the examples from the rise of past major societal systems – Capitalism, Communism, Feudalism, Imperialism, etc. – we know it takes the right generation of people with fitting cultural traits to collectively buy-in and believe the new model works and must be realized. So will there be a generation that culturally fits to truly push mass adoption of a Shared Value Economy?
It is not a coincidence that it is this current generation that birthed the genesis of the Shared Value concept. The rise of Participatory culture in social media, Web 2.0, Open Source, mobile networks, is teaching us that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. An entire global generation is now raised with this experience and truth, and we are starting to want it enacted in the other areas of society, from commerce to government to family.
But wanting it and having mass adoption are two separate things. It still takes the right generation with the right cultural traits and the right environmental circumstances to really embrace the concept and adopt it systemically.
Michael E. Porter believes that this generational tipping point may come from places at a disadvantage in the current capitalist system. From the HBR ‘Creating Shared Value’ article:
“Equal or greater opportunities arise from serving disadvantaged communities and developing countries. Though societal needs are even more pressing there, these communities have not been recognized as viable markets. Today attention is riveted on India, China and increasingly Brazil, which offer firms the prospect of reaching billions of new customers at the bottom of the pyramid… As capitalism begins to work in poorer communities, new opportunities for economic development and social progress increase exponentially.”
This and next generation of China’s youth may be the pivotal group the Shared Value Economy is looking for. Here’s why:
1) Chinese youth are already in-step with the newest global ideas.
Participatory culture from the Internet, social media, and mobile has been the experience of Chinese youth, similar to those in other countries. New concepts such as Shared Value not only have a receptive audience with Chinese youth, they are actively advocated and spread. Isaac Mao, one of China’s earliest bloggers, leads Sharism.org in China, an organization dedicated to educating and advocating the philosophy and practice of Sharism. “The more you give, the more you get, the more you share, the more you’re shared”. Frequent meetings and conferences are held in Beijing and Shanghai, attended by some of the top thought-leaders and internet influencers in China.
photo credit: bergstromtrends.com
Other than the Internet & Social Media, Youth growing up in China have few other social spaces to call their own. So Participatory culture and derived concepts have become important for them to cling to, as it makes up a larger piece of their generational identity.
2) Hyper growth means less entrenched traditional norms.
Chinese youth have only known fast and radical change. New is normal. Therefore Chinese Youth are seeking new meaning in all aspects of their life; the meanings of self-identity, of being an individual, of being a society. This extends to re-examining old ideas that older generations hold so dear. Chinese youth are less resistant, and more willing to re-define the meanings of ‘business’, ‘industry’, and ‘capitalism’. Unlike other developed societies where the definitions of these concepts are treated as sacred and entrenched at an early age, in China these terms are newer, and much greyer. Other developed capitalist countries will take longer to extricate themselves from what they know and dare to reconsider the validity. China’s youth do not have that problem. They are re-defining traditional capitalism right now.
3) China’s next generation cannot keep up with traditional consumption.
This is one of the most important drivers for China’s potential leadership in Shared Value. Young people’s job and income prospects are far worse in China than in many other developed countries, while competition is several times greater. Even the hopes of achieving middle class consumption levels are a real struggle in China. A young person would need to take out a 70-80 year mortgage to buy a small apartment in one of China’s major cities. The traditional expectations of a consumption economy are not possible in China’s reality. Chinese youth are driven towards different solutions to survive and flourish. Shared Value can fit this need.
4) First chances for creation, making new rules
If we had the first 3 reasons but a completely restrictive government and market, there would be no chance for this generation of China’s youth to champion Shared Value. Luckily this is not the case. China’s emerging marketized economy means there is room for new Firsts in everything. Few legacy systems or processes means entrepreneurs and organizations have the chance now to re-structure the market and industries to newer business concepts. In addition, few legacy ecosystems and competencies mean entrepreneurs and organizations must develop new clusters to create markets and pool resources to gather strength enough to build something of value. This is Shared Value in action.
We already see Shared Value Consumption taking root in China.
Swap shops are opening and swap markets are being organized by normal members of the community. Chinese youth love the feeling of surprise they get from thinking they can turn old, under-used items into something useful they need – all without spending more money.
Swap Shop in a popular Beijing Hutong
Buy42.com is a new website and service that asks people to donate their second-hand clothes. The people at Buy42 then mix and match the donated clothes to create fashionable vintage or alternative, edgy ensembles to be resold. This provides a few important societal values: 1) educates & leads a larger mass population about vintage and alternative fashion styles 2) makes it easy for them to buy whole outfits at low prices 3) does it all using existing products without new manufacturing.
Buy42.com now has a fast-growing following on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. It has set up dedicated channels for the clothes donated by leading indie designers and influential arty-youth. Buy42 only takes a percentage of the money made from the resale of clothes to run the website and staff the company; the rest of the income is donated to charity for China’s poor.
Shared Value Creation in China is still in its infancy, but companies large and small are finding numerous fertile opportunities to align business value chains with society. One important role companies can play for this Chinese generation is creating Shared Value in culture.
Nike China invests in underground street-ball tournaments, sponsoring local rap artists to write street-ball anthems, and even designing and freely giving away customized street-ball Nike products. Nike understands that directly investing in a strong street-ball culture builds Nike’s future China market.
China Youthology also strives to lead by example in Shared Value Creation.
Open Youthology, a platform offering youth free inspirational conferences, equipping community research, and funding for innovative new cultural assets, is China Youthology’s current strategy for Shared Value Creation. Developing China’s youth in cultural creativity, the courage to explore, and critical questioning, we are enlarging and strengthening our own market.
By helping Chinese youth grow as bright, inquisitive minds, we benefit from a larger and stronger pool of young researcher talent that we can hire. We also benefit from deeper acceptance into youth subculture communities because of the added credibility and legitimacy gained from our youth engagement. This benefits our research insights as we can dive deeper than normal researchers, into the lives of Chinese youth. We then in turn offer better research to our clients, who keep us profitable so we can continue investing in youth engagement and building China’s youth communities.
Through this Shared Value business model, we not only create a competitive advantage for our business and ensure greater market sustainability, but more importantly, Shared Value enables the leaders of tomorrow’s China a greater youth experience and more positive life inspiration.
Perhaps Shared Value Creation as a business model came quicker and more naturally for us because China Youthology is so immersed in Chinese youth’s mindset and culture – or because we are Chinese youth ourselves. But as we see other young entrepreneurs building Shared Value Creation business models, we think we’re only at the beginning, with the potential to bring the Shared Value Economy into greater mass adoption.
Someday when I introduce Open Youthology, instead of a confused responding question about maximizing profits, I hope I get a response of illumination: “ah! You’re creating Shared Value!”
Youth attending a Butter Youth Conference by Open Youthology
In the Nov/Dec 2010 Issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine, there is a fantastic article entitled “The Demographic Future” by Nicholas Eberstadt, where he introduces what the world of 2030 will look like from a demographic standpoint. As he explains:
“It is already possible to draw a reasonably reliable profile of the world’s population in 2030. This is, of course, because the overwhelming majority of those who will inhabit the world 20 years from now are already alive. As a result, one can make some fairly confident estimates of important demographic trends, including manpower availability, the growth in the number of senior citizens, and the resulting support burden on workers.”
Mr. Eberstadt spends a portion of his essay on China’s future situation, and he paints an outlook most people familiar with China’s demographic trends have known for some time: a doubling of the number of senior citizens, a shrinking of the younger working class, and rudimentary social welfare and pension systems that incapable of coping with the massive imbalance.
This coming reality is shared by the US and all developed nations, except China’s is pushed to the extremes because of its much larger population, much poorer per capita income, much lower education levels, and a more ill-equipped pension system.
Yet, for all these colossal national challenges, Eberstadt’s essay adds one more demographic trend unique to China that will have significant social and cultural implications:
“…China will face a growing number of young men who will never marry due to the country’s one-child policy, which has resulted in a reported birth ratio of almost 120 boys for every 100 girls…By 2030, projections suggest that more than 25% of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married. The coming marriage squeeze will likely be even more acute in the Chinese countryside, since the poor, uneducated, and rural population will be more likely to lose out in the competition for brides.”
Can you even begin to comprehend living in a society where 1 in every 4 adult men you meet will have never married, and not by choice? How could this change the social and cultural dynamics of China?
Here are some ideas to get you pondering:
Men Marrying Younger Women
If a man cannot find a woman to marry in his peer group, perhaps he will find greater opportunity to marry a girl of a younger generation. By then, perhaps this man will have saved a little more money and may be desirable enough for a younger woman (and that young woman’s family) to consider. In fact, this is already a part of China’s reality today. It is quite common to meet Chinese couples where the man is 10, 20 or 30 years older than his wife. Chinese men are already putting off marriage until they can properly afford to provide for a wife and family. Chinese pragmatism and a continued income-imbalance based on gender play roles here. Perhaps the demographics of 2030 will show this trend to strengthen and become even more commonplace in the population instead of shrinking.
Sexuality in Question
There is great support on both sides of the argument as to whether Homosexuality is a genetic or social outcome. However, if you are persuaded that Homosexuality is in part influenced by social factors, then it is worthwhile to explore what impact such a large population of unmarried men might have on the issue of sexual orientation. There is already a thriving LGBT community and subculture in China, but as ‘coming out’ continues to find acceptance and support in the younger generations, will this significant gender imbalance have any effect on the perspective of the LGBT community in the China’s future mainstream consciousness?
Anger and Frustration
The prospect of never finding a life partner can be one of the greatest fears in a person’s life. In a culture like China’s, where the mainstream societal expectation continues to put heavy emphasis on progeny, family network strength, and family unit establishment as a benefit to status-building, for these one in four adult Chinese males, being single adds extra dimensions of undesirability. Deep personal anger and frustrations must inevitably be a byproduct of these societal pressures.
If these single men will be found predominantly in a single demographic – namely rural, poor and uneducated men – what we might see is the emergence of a distinct sub-group of people, or a new class segregation. An entire class of potentially angry, frustrated, relatively poor and uneducated single men can mean serious threats to societal stability, if this group builds a class identity that feels antagonized by society as a whole. China’s history is full of examples when a group lashes out in defiance and/or violence. This potential new class of single, frustrated men will number in the tens of millions in 2030.
Resilience of Chinese Endurance
There are also a number of examples in history of the Chinese (and other Asian cultures) enduring harsh, distressed, unfair circumstances for generations. It speaks to the resilience and strength of Chinese culture in helping the particular afflicted group align its interests with the general collective society, enabling them to live out their lives enduring the pains of their life situation.
Perhaps this group of single men will not affect anything socially or culturally, but instead stay silent and endure their circumstance as other groups of Chinese have done in the past. For this to happen though will depend on the state and strength of China’s collective culture in the coming 20 years.
The Chinese government has been aware of these demographic trends for some time now. They have known, likely before the rest of the world did, that China’s fertility rate fell below the minimum population-replacement fertility rate (2.1 children per family) more than two decades ago. So why hasn’t the government done anything if it can see the problems that may lie waiting ahead?
The more immediate challenges China faces must be addressed first. Enacting and maintaining the one-child policy alleviated growing pressures on agriculture and natural resources to give China a chance to shift industries and redirect capital into transforming China into an industrial nation and then a privatized economy. Without first accomplishing the short-term goals, China will never be in a position with the right resources to solve any longer-term issues.
Second, having a unified, single-minded governing body and a mass society that generally trusts and believes in the decisions of its government have its unique advantages. One of those advantages is the ability to enact sweeping and often extreme changes very quickly. The Chinese government thirty years ago asked a nation to limit child bearing to one per family. It is not inconceivable that the same government can ask this same nation thirty years later to double its children – for the betterment of the society.
While the official government rhetoric until now has been no changes in the One Child Policy, we are starting to see experimentation in a few selected demographics, and the creation of small policy loop-holes that are allowing more Chinese families to legally have more than one child. A good friend of mine who was a former UN officer working on the issue of China’s birth and fertility concurs with the expectation that China will sooner rather than later reverse its stance on the one-child policy and push some new form of incentive to drive birthrates up.
The question is whether the incentives will be enough. One of the biggest concerns facing Chinese families today is how to afford raising one child, let alone two. As one recent article from Reuters explains, some couples who have the opportunity to have a second child still choose only to have one as the costs of living and education are so substantial. In our own research work at China Youthology, we observe an increasing number of young post 80’s and 90’s kids who say they have no desire to have any children at all. They simply are not interested in a life with parenting responsibilities.
This could all mean for the Chinese government, that something a bit stronger than incentives may be needed in order for fertility rates to rise again. If there is any country that has the political audacity and executional strength to do something so drastic, it is China.
However, for this coming generation of frustrated, single men, any policy changes now are too little too late. This emerging reality is almost here. The only thing we can do now is develop a richer and stronger Chinese culture so they can find some relief from any feelings of alienation or frustration. New initiatives that will help cohesion of family, community, and collective social units will be integral in enabling those unable to find a life-partner to cope and have other life-meanings to pursue.
Hunan TV””s “If You Are The One”, a massively popular TV show where one man tries to persuade a panel of 24 eligible single girls that he is husband-material.