China announced last week that it would end its one-child policy. The policy, implemented over three decades ago in an attempt to limit ruinous population growth, was never popular but it seemed to work. Some would say that it worked too well, and now China faces a demographic crisis that threatens to exceed that of Japan, the world’s “grayest country.” Unfortunately, for China’s economic planners, the announcement is unlikely to alter the nation’s demographic trajectory. While government policies are important, they are not determinative: Today, many young Chinese do not want a second child.
The one-child policy was introduced in 1979 as the Communist Party leadership feared that sustained population growth would strip China of natural resources and make economic development impossible. The typical understanding of the policy was incorrect. All Chinese were not restricted to one child; the limit applied only to urban families. Those who lived in the countryside, and whose first child was female, could have a second. Members of China’s 55 ethnic minorities could also have more than one child. Nevertheless, about two-thirds of Chinese families were covered by the one-child restrictions. The policy is credited with preventing 400 million births and facilitating China’s economic takeoff.
Experts believe, however, that the demographic trends were in place before the one-child policy was adopted as a result of government efforts to promote the small-family ideal along with the spread of family-planning clinics and ways of limiting reproduction.
Nevertheless, family planning officials took up their assignments with zeal and propaganda was deemed insufficient. The policy evolved into an intrusive and heavy hand by the country’s family planners. Reports of heavy fines, forced abortions and even forced sterilization abound. Human rights groups — and not just those with a religious bent — have long criticized the one-child policy as one of the worst abuses by the Beijing government.
Other problems followed. The most troubling for the government is the prospect of a shrinking pool of young workers that is forced to support — for pensions and other retirement benefits — a huge mass of the elderly.
This is a problem that Japan knows well. According to government statistics, China will overtake Japan to become the “grayest” country in the world in 15 years, home to more than 400 million people — about a quarter of the population — over the age of 60. More alarming is the fact that China’s working-age population — those age 15-64 — will begin to decline next year, and the workforce could be reduced by as many as 11 million people between 2015-2020. The five-to-one worker- retiree ratio that now exists is forecast to erode to 1.6 to one by 2040.
Just as disturbing is the gender imbalance that is emerging in China. Boys remain the child of choice, and female babies have a tendency to disappear. Infanticide is not uncommon. One study estimates that at least 1 million babies — most of them girls — were killed in the first decade of the policy, and new technologies allow determination of the fetuses’ sex while still in the womb. As many as 95 percent of children in orphanages are girls. Even though women outnumber men by natural selection, in China, there is a “shortage” of nearly 34 million women, with some estimates of the number of bachelors reckoned to reach 40-50 million in 35 years.
Finally, there is the problem of “little emperors,” a generation of spoiled children raised by doting parents and grandparents who have little understanding of limits. This group will be forced to support that huge gray cohort and it is not clear that they will have the emotional capacity to do so.
A few years, ago the government began to loosen the restrictions. Couples in which either parent was an only child were allowed to have a second child. In addition, wealthy families could pay for the freedom to have more children. Film director Zhang Yimou was fined $1.2 million and forced to apologize for his three “excessive” children.
His readiness to take advantage of the new liberalization is not typical, however. In Beijing, for example, a city of 20 million, just over 53,000 couples submitted applications to have a second child. Nationwide, 11 million couples are estimated to be eligible and it was reckoned that as many as 2 million new births would follow. In fact, less than 1 million have applied.
Experts now believe that the announcement to lift the remaining restrictions and allow all families to apply to have a second child will not noticeably lift China’s population. Skyrocketing prices in cities mean that a second child poses a considerable financial burden that many Chinese are not sure they can support. Then there are the burdens of child rearing that a spoiled generation of Chinese are not sure they want to assume, even if they can afford them. And, finally, there is the general tendency of families in developed societies to get smaller. This trend is evident throughout the West, as well as in Japan and South Korea. As a result, the experts anticipate only a 10 percent increase in births as a result of the policy change. The one-child policy may be gone; the one-child mentality remains.