The Corner

The one and only.

Teeming China


So, Derb, you don’t mean to say that China is overpopulated.  What you do mean to say is that a number of Chinese administrative regions are overpopulated (on your own accounting, other administrative regions, including the three largest—Inner Mongolia, East Turkestan, and Tibet—are pretty nearly empty).  Crowded places, in short, in an uncrowded country.

How come?  Why would so many Chinese pack themselves into certain adminstrative regions so densely? Much of the reason, surely, is that life in Chinese cities—even very, very crowded cities—is unambiguously preferable to the rural life that several hundred million Chinese have only recently left behind, even as a century ago (just for instance) life in the densely-packed Lower East Side proved unambiguously preferable to life in the ghettoes and shtetls of Europe.  And if Chinese are moving into cities because doing so improves their lives, then according to what criterion (to repeat my question) are those cities overpopulated?

To type “numbers” in capitals is not to advance a criterion, but only to suggest an aesthetic—a distaste, not a reason, like Henry James turning up his nose at the teeming immigrants in Manhattan.  Those teeming immigrants, be it noted, took advantage of the American marketplace—and their grandchildren now live in roomy houses in low-density suburbs.  The dislocations taking place in China today are on a vastly larger scale than those in Europe and the United States in the late nineteeth and early twentieth centuries, of course—but then the economic growth now taking place in China is proving much faster.  The Chinese most certainly face enormous problems, including, I readily grant, desertification and water shortages.  But life in China is getting, on balance, better, much better, not worse.

Would China be still better off with fewer people?  Would the country be experiencing even faster economic growth?  Maybe.  But you haven’t even begun to show why.  What we do know is that, once human beings are given a measure of economic freedom, they will very quickly cease to represent burdens to one another, becoming assets instead.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review