Frogs and Flight Paths

Michael Metzger

Praying for China
They say if you throw a frog in a kettle of boiling water, it will immediately jump out. But if you throw it in a pot of cool water and slowly turn up the heat, it’ll boil to death. If Japan’s economy is a frog, it’s already boiled, says Shumpei Takemori, a professor of economics at Tokyo’s Keio University.1 China’s economy is following the same flight path as Japan’s – just a few years behind. There’s only one problem with the pictures of frogs and flight paths. Only one is true. As the Summer Olympics open this Friday in Beijing, it will help those who pray for China to know which one is right.

Tokyo hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics, marking Japan’s recovery from World War II and it’s emergence as an economic juggernaut. Remember when “Made in Japan” was going to take over the world and Japanese corporations were buying up baubles such as Rockefeller Center? What happened? Japan got old. “We have become a full-fledged aged society,” a government report declared in May of 2008. “The pace of aging … is expected to enter a phase that no other country in the world has yet experienced.”2

Japanese are living longer than ever but having fewer children than ever. By 2050, 25 percent of the population will be 75 or older, and 40 percent will be 65 or older. That compares with 16.2 percent projected for the world by the United Nations for those aged 65 or older in 2050. A doddering nation will be dying economically. Fifteen years ago, Japan ranked fourth among the world’s countries in gross domestic product per capita. It now ranks 20th. In 1994, its share of the world’s economy peaked at 18 percent; in 2006, the number was below 10 percent. By 2050, Japan’s economy will be about the size of Indonesia’s or Brazil’s, according to a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers.3

The People’s Republic of China appears to be following the same flight path. The reason for China’s dramatic aging however is different. “Because of the Communist Party’s notorious one-child-per-family policy, the average number of children born to a Chinese woman has dropped from 5.8 in the 1970s to 1.8 today – below the rate of 2.1 that would keep the population stable,” writes John Pomfret, a former Beijing bureau chief of The Washington Post and the author of Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China.4 China’s elderly will balloon from 100 million people older than 60 today to 334 million by 2050, including a staggering 100 million age 80 or older. Fewer than 30 percent of China’s urban dwellers have a pension, and none of the country’s 700 million farmers do. “And China’s state-funded pension system makes Social Security look like Fort Knox,” writes Pomfret, who lived in China for over two decades.

The picture gets hazy when you throw in Chinese traditions. It is usually the sons, rather than daughters, who care for aged parents. In the early 1990s the average 60-year-old Chinese woman had five children. Her counterpart in 2025 will have fewer than two. A third or more of these women approaching retirement age will likely have no living sons.5 Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer and economist at the American Enterprise Institute says China’s demographic time bomb is “a slow-motion humanitarian tragedy in the making.”6 The haze however is not just from Chinese traditions. The environmental degradation means China’s declining economy will require an instrument landing.

Pomfret moved his family from China to Los Angeles in 2004. When people asked him why they’d moved, he joked, “For the air.” He meant it. This year, China will surpass the United States as the world’s No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases. It continues to be the largest depleter of the ozone layer. And it’s the largest polluter of the Pacific Ocean.

Sixteen of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China, 70 percent of the country’s lakes and rivers are polluted, and half the population lacks clean drinking water. The constant smoggy haze over northern China diminishes crop yields. By 2030, the nation will face a water shortage equal to the amount it consumes today; factories in the northwest have already been forced out of business because there just isn’t any water. China is clearly on the same flight path as Japan. The frog in the kettle is the myth.

“Well that’s, may I say, bull___. If a frog had a means of getting out, it certainly would get out. And I cannot imagine that anything dropped in boiling water would not be scalded and die from the injuries,” says Dr. George R. Zug, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the National Museum of Natural History.7 The “critical thermal maxima” of many species of frogs means that as water temperature increases, frogs become more and more active in their attempts to escape.8 China’s leaders are more active these days as they step up attempts to reduce air pollution in Beijing and elsewhere. They’re not sitting sublimely in the stew and boiling to death.

All that glitters is not gold, wrote William Shakespeare. Keep that in mind as NBC dazzles viewers with the glitter of China’s Olympics. Pray for China’s leaders and the reforms needed for the country to advance as it ages. On the other side of the coin, all that is gold does not glitter, wrote J. R. R. Tolkien. Pray for the countless Christians in China – some seen and many unseen – working to renew and transform China. They won’t win any gold medals but their work is critical to China’s future.

1 Blaine Harden, “For Japan, a Long, Slow Slide: Declines in Productivity, Population Combining to Stifle Economic Growth,” Washington Post, February 3, 2008; A17.
2 Mike Nizza, “Japan: ‘A Full-Fledged Aged Society,'” New York Times, May 20, 2008.
3 Harden, “Japan.”
4 John Pomfret, “A Long Wait at the Gate to Greatness,” Washington Post, July 27, 2008; B01.
5 Nicholas Eberstadt, “Old Age Tsunami: Asia’s graying populations could roil the global economy,” Wall Street Journal, November 15, 2005.
6 Pomfret, “A Long Wait.”
7 “Next Time, What Say We Boil a Consultant,” Fast Company, Issue 1, October 1995.
8 Dr. Richard Hutchinson is Professor Emeritus from the University of Oklahoma’s Department of Zoology.


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  1. Mike,
    You drop a heavy assertion at the end “their work is critical to China’s future.” in the midst of a profound politico social ill. Are you trying to say that the scant percentage of Christian’s in China will solve their political/social/economic and ecological issues? I would beg to differ. Just as the comparative state of Japan, who has been under US/Christian influences since the 40’s, are the very model you establish to parallel China’s ‘flight path’. Japan too has a scant Christian populous and they aren’t “soaring”. So,will the few Christians in China really have such a profound effect. In the first through third centuries was influenced by the Christian world view and principles, the Roman state even nationalized the Christian “faith” and we know that State failed.
    There seems to be only minor victories in the effort…less babies aborted/given up for adoption and some small microcosms redeemed(which are all good), but the whole “state’ of China seems highly improbable.(Just as America has pockets of Christian governed thinking/actions, but is not a whole state of Christians…we still have problems)
    It won’t stop me from praying for China and their workers, but I do not agree that it will end all that is identified in the commentary.

  2. Hi Mike — I have 2 unrelated thoughts — (1) I viewed a PBS show 2 weeks ago that documented the explosive growth of the Christian movement in China which began back in the 1940’s and continues to this day. So, from that, and other sources I have, I do think the Christian population will be a force…..and I say this respectfully to the other person who left a comment. As we know the Christians had a profound effect in the Roman Empire prior to Constantine’s edict.(2) I also think there is no way the Communist Party in China will clean up the pollution problem there b/c it would mean putting millions of workers out of work (short term and long term) which would cause unrest of huge proportions. To think that China will join with other countries in curtailing pollution (beyond the Beijing Olympics) and risk an uprising seems to me a fantasy. To paraphrase Churchhill, “I cannot forecast to you the action of China [Russia]. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

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