China’s one-child policy ensured prosperity at a terrible price


The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Saturday, Oct. 31:

Boy-boy-boy girl. Boy-boy-boy-girl.

Visit a school or playground in a Chinese city, and count the results of a government edict limiting most couples to one child. In a culture that favors sons over daughters, some families will use ultrasounds and abortions to get the baby they desire.

Social engineering is a dangerous pursuit. China knew years and years ago that its one-child policy was a draconian step that could bring dire consequences. But Communist Party leaders also considered it the only practical, expedient solution to overpopulation, which threatened to sabotage the country’s race to modernization.

Now, after 35 years, the one-child policy has been lifted — or at least modified. The new rules permit families to have two children.

If you’re looking for a single example of how different life in China can be from in America, the one-child policy surely is it: a harsh government intrusion on privacy instituted for the greater good. It’s ending now, not because an enlightened leadership wants to right a wrong but because the policy is no longer needed.

Actually, the one-child policy threatens Chinese prosperity the way overpopulation once did. China, with 1.3 billion people, would have had about 400 million more mouths to feed without the one-child policy. But the country is aging and the labor force is shrinking, and that will put a tremendous burden on the country in the next few decades.

By 2050, China will have more than 440 million people over age 60. Who will care for all those people as they grow old? Under the one-child policy, a married couple has sole responsibility for four elderly parents because the adult children have no brothers or sisters to share the burden.

This gets at the human toll of such an extreme law: For more than a generation, China has been a culture that forbids siblings, where there are no aunts or uncles. Local party officials, charged with carrying out the policy, levied heavy fines on couples who had multiple children, or punished women with forced abortions and sterilization.

Because many families subverted the law by using fetal testing to determine the sex, the result has been devastating in its own way. China has a serious gender imbalance. Globally, an average of 103 to 107 boys are born for every 100 girls, but in China the ration is about 118 boys per 100.

The result is a subculture of what the Chinese call “bare branches” — men who cannot find women to marry. There may be as many as 30 million of these lonely people. Enough that some social scientists worry they are disaffected enough to cause an increase in the crime rate. Enough that one economist suggested in a blog allowing multiple men to marry one woman. According to The New York Times, the economist was shamed by critics, one of whom wrote: “Behind the imbalanced sex ratio of 30 million bachelors lie 30 million baby girls who died due to sex discrimination.”

The one-child policy was never applied to all Chinese; rural families, for example were allowed two children and often had more. The government began loosening the restriction in 2013, signaling the end of the policy was coming. But there is still a significant worry: birthrates typically decline as societies become more affluent, and so there is no guarantee that urban couples will embrace the opportunity to have a second child. China may find it is too late to undo all the damage caused by its cruel experiment.

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