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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.

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