Over the past several decades, much of Asia, from Singapore to Seoul, has been experiencing a demographic implosion of unsettling proportions – just look at Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Kazakhstan and its Central Asia neighbors, meanwhile, stand out as exceptions to the regional norm.
Asian states jittery about their below-replacement birth rates – less than 2.1 births on average per woman – might learn something from Kazakhstan’s recent experience.
In his State of the Nation Address to parliament this month, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, President of Kazakhstan, proudly stated that “more than 400,000 children are born in our country every year. By the end of 2023, Kazakhstan’s population will reach 20 million.” He sees this as a positive development, not something to be regretted.
Population has been trending upwards in Central Asia for years unlike in China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and elsewhere in Eurasia.
Kazakhstan’s population numbers – and those across Central Asia – are all the more remarkable in view of the intensity of anti-natalist propaganda in the media and the vast sums of money being dished out by its supporters to limit population growth.
So what’s going on?
One of the principal factors making for increased fertility in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia is the population’s openness to new life, which is seen as essential to thriving clans, tribes, and the nation as such. Motherhood is viewed as a vocation and a good in itself, and is encouraged, protected, and nurtured from one generation to the next.
Tokayev says: “Knowing one’s roots and honoring family traditions have always occupied a special place in the inner consciousness of our people. Today [these attitudes] play an important role in shaping the new qualities of our nation.”
Tokayev believes that his government’s socio-economic policies must be consistent with Kazakhstan’s deeply rooted traditions and culture-of-life ethic, which, at its core, is expansive and positive in nature.
He has given his government the green light to adopt pro-family policies, including natalist incentives, especially for the underprivileged and working class, so that they may be better prepared to face the hardships and uncertainties of parenthood and the challenges of everyday life.
Tokayev, like others in the region, remembers Soviet Marxism as a near-death experience for the nation owing, in large part, to the violent manner in which the ideology – including official atheism – was imposed on society: forced industrialization, the collectivization of agriculture, central economic planning, the Great Terror, the Civil War, etc.
Tokayev is therefore immune to the cultural pessimism, indeed the nihilism, of so many of the anti-natalist proponents of what has been called, not without justice, a culture of death.
In a recent address to parents, Tokayev said: “One of the main priorities of our policies is to protect and support motherhood and children. Parents and the extended family make a huge contribution to the preservation and promotion of family values.”
On International Children’s Day, Tokayev stated that “children are the future of our country. We must take care of them. Creating favorable conditions for the development of the younger generation will always be a priority of the state.”
What’s more, in speech after speech, Tokayev has made amply clear that unity (not uniformity) and solidarity (not discordant individualism) are goals worth pursuing for Kazakhstan. He takes seriously the adage that “a city or house divided against itself will not stand.” For Tokayev, national integration begins at home in families and neighborhoods across Kazakhstan irrespective of language, religion, ethnicity.
Much of Eurasia in a panic
Kazakhstan’s estimated population growth is expected to be 1.08% in 2023, compared with 0.02% for China, 0.53% for Japan, minus-0.13% for South Korea, minus-0.06% for Taiwan and minus-0.15% for Thailand. Estimated 2023 fertility rates for the same countries tell a similar story.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said recently, “We have been working on measures to address the declining birth rate and policies related to children … the major issue of whether or not we can maintain our society as a whole is a question Japan cannot put off dealing with.”
According to The Korean Herald, President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea said: “In the absence of a good culture for childbirth and child-rearing, new policies alone cannot solve the low birthrate problem.” No wonder Yoon has pointed out that “despite a significant investment of 280 trillion won [US$212 billion] over the past 15 years, the total fertility rate in 2022 reached a record low of 0.78.”
Across the region, the collapse of birth rates is staring everyone in the face, and yet the statement of the 20th ASEAN-India Summit in Indonesia (September 7) and the G20 New Delhi Leaders Declaration (September 10) made no reference to the population crisis.
In all likelihood, Tokayev – seeing what’s happening across Asia – won’t put up with aggressive anti-natalist narratives that jeopardize the country’s openness to robust families and new life.
At the UN General Assembly this month in New York, in an act of magnanimity, Tokayev should propose having a conference on demography in Astana in 2024. Some countries just might pick up a few life-enhancing tips.
The article was originally published in Asia Times news website.