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The evolution of infant mortality in China since 1950

Otto Kolbl

Development is a long-term process. Looking at the evolution of infant mortality and GDP over several decades is the only way of understanding this complex topic. The result of this analysis might be quite a surprise: the Chinese communist regime is the most efficient baby-life-saving machine ever. Obviously, neither Chinese nor Western media, neither Chinese nor Western academics will ever tell us about this.

The chart below shows the relationship between GDP and infant mortality in 2015. Like in most charts presented on this website, countries which massively export oil or other mining products are excluded from the analysis. For each country, the x-axis represents GDP, or rather GDP per capita purchasing power parity, considered to be a good indicator of the standard of living. The y-axis represents infant mortality, i.e. the number of babies which die in their first year of life, out of 1000 babies born alive. It is quite obvious that low-income countries have got a high infant mortality, whereas high-income countries have got a low infant mortality.

Relationship between economic development and infant mortality rate
Relationship between economic development and infant mortality rate.

However, this does not tell us much about the evolution over past decades. The chart below is animated, which allows a precise comparison of China with a couple of selected countries (colored dots). The animation shows the evolution from 1950 to 2015, which is basically the time range for which reasonably reliable data is available for the majority of countries. The broader global context is provided by the small dark grey dots, each of which represents one country; they are surrounded by the yellow area for better visualization.

Relationship between economic development and infant mortality rate
Relationship between economic development and infant mortality rate.

The animation over time in a constant scale provides a few insights which are not that obvious on still charts. What immediately strikes the eye is that the gap between the poorest and the wealthiest countries increases dramatically. This is true with regards to both GDP and infant mortality. For the poorest countries, infant mortality has basically dropped from roughly 300‰ to 100‰ (3:1), whereas it dropped from roughly 30‰ to 2‰ (15:1) for the most industrialized countries. As a consequence, the death of babies is no more a concrete reality for inhabitants of rich countries, whereas it remains a daily worry for parents in the poorer countries. This gap does not facilitate mutual understanding. With regards to GDP, it should be noted that at the end of the 1960 and beginning of the 1970s, the poorest countries were less poor than today. Another article will provide a detailed analysis of the causes of this disaster for the poorest countries.

With regards to the selected countries (colored dots), the distance covered gives a very rough approximation of the progress achieved over the 65 years represented here (1950-2015). Progress can easily be evaluated separately in economic development (horizontal distance to the right) and in infant mortality (vertical distance downwards). As a whole, China has covered the greatest distance. In 1950, it was one of the poorest countries on earth with an infant mortality above the average for this level of GDP (based on estimates in the absence of reliable data before 1953). In 2015, China has already covered roughly two thirds of the distance which separates the poorest countries from to the group of highly industrialized nations.

The extreme poverty of China in 1950 was due mainly to the fact that whereas virtually all other Asian countries started to develop around 1900 or earlier, nothing happened in China before 1949. Of course there was some notable socio-economic develop in a couple of major cities, especially in port cities. Obviously, the Guomindang had some interesting ideas for developing the countryside, but nothing was implemented. On the contrary, even mainstream Western historians who defend the legacy of the Guomindang have to concede that during the Republic of China (1912-1949), living conditions in the countryside mostly deteriorated.

The development of China after 1949 is all the more impressive. The red line shows three clearly different phases: under Mao Zedong (1949-1976), progress in social development was impressive, with some serious disruption during the Great Leap forward (1958-1962). During the first stage of the economic reforms (1978-1995), economic growth accelerated, but the decrease in infant mortality slowed down, before it almost stopped. Since 1995, fast GDP growth was combined with fast decrease in infant mortality.

Like in all other charts on this website, you can select other countries for detailed analysis (button "Select countries"). You can also stop the animation with the "Pause animation" button and get more details about each country for the years between 1950 and 2015. It is almost impossible to find any country which has made more progress in the last 65 years.

Some might point out that during the 1950s and 1960s, Japan moved faster than China. However, moving fast during the first stages of development, in the upper left corner, is much more difficult than moving fast in the central part. It took Japan 90 years of steady, but relatively slow socio-economic development before it got to where it was in 1950. Each single other country which has seen fast economic growth at some time in its history (phase 2) had to go through a similar first phase of slow socio-economic development, characterized by the build-up of infrastructure, education, healthcare and a beginning of industrialization (phase 1). The chart below shows economic development for a few selected countries, highlighting the two phases of development.

GDP per capita of China, the USA, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, from 1870 to 2019
GDP data for China, the USA, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and India. Sources: IMF, World Bank, ICP 2011, Maddison Project, various others.

This first phase is necessary before a poor agrarian country can achieve fast growth. Whereas China has managed to complete this first phase in 27 years (1949-1976), no other country has been able to do so in less than 50 years (see China's Mao-Deng development model). When evaluating the progress of China between 1950 and 2015 shown on the second chart above, we should consider that this first phase is included into the time span of the chart in the case of China, but not in the case of many other countries which are now among high-income countries.

Hopefully, this short article can contribute to a better understanding of socio-economic development in general, and of the results achieved by the CPC in particular. Many more articles will follow which will provide more in-depth analyses of specific aspects. The achievements of the CPC (since 1949) contrast in an impressive way with the almost total absence of results under the Republic of China (1912-1949), when almost all the other countries of the region were able to improve the lives of their population in a significant way.

Only a comparative approach across countries based on reliable data provided by international organizations can allow us evaluate the progress (or absence of progress) achieved by the various political regimes on earth. Such an evaluation is required by the most fundamental UN human rights texts, in particular with regards to infant mortality. To a certain extent, it is understandable that Western academics don't perform such an evaluation; it would be difficult for them to swallow that a communist regime does better in both economic and social development than the multi-party democracy regimes they favor.

However, it is really difficult to understand why no Chinese academics do this kind of research. Analyzing the relationship between economic development and infant mortality should be a top priority for each researcher with some humanist values. In addition, providing reliable data about the socio-economic development of China and presenting it in an easily understandable way is key to promote intercultural understanding. In the absence of such data, it is much easier for those who oppose China for economic, strategic or ideological reasons to impose their hostile views and to call for boycotts, sanctions and military containment. It is difficult to justify such measures against a regime which has done more than any other in history to save the lives of the babies born on its territory. Maybe this article can inspire some Chinese researchers to dig a little deeper into the precise mechanisms of this success.