CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – The abolition of China’s 35-year-old one-child policy closes one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history. In the late 1970s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), determined to boost economic growth, decided that population control was the answer. Millions of abortions, sterilizations and infanticides later, its chickens are coming home to roost.
In raw numbers, the one-child policy’s human toll has been even greater than that of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which caused a famine that killed around 36 million people from 1959 to 1961. And it exceeded that of the Cultural Revolution, in which large-scale political violence likely caused as many as another 10 million deaths from 1966 to 1976.
As for the one-child policy, data released by China’s health ministry in 2013 indicate that from 1971 to 2012, 336 million abortions — more than the entire U.S. population — were carried out in registered facilities alone. (Though the one-child policy was not introduced until about 1979, other family-planning policies were already in place at the time.)
The National Health and Family Planning Commission, the government agency responsible for enforcing the one-child policy, reports an even higher figure: more than 13 million surgical abortions each year — a figure that does not include abortions induced by drugs or carried out in unregistered private clinics.
Of course, it is impossible to know precisely what share of those abortions can be attributed to enforcement of the one-child policy. But in, say, India, where abortion is legal and no comparable family-planning policy exists, the figure is significantly lower — though probably not as low as the 630,000 annual figure provided by the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Indeed, it is probably closer to 6 million per year.
Although there is undoubtedly an economic disparity between India and China, their populations are roughly equal. So it is reasonable to estimate that as many as half of China’s abortions — some 6.5 million registered surgical abortions, plus untold numbers of drug-induced or unregistered abortions, per year — are attributable to the one-child policy. This implies that there were upwards of 200 million abortions over the policy’s 35 years.
But forced abortions are only the beginning. Indeed, these figures — however shocking — do not capture the human suffering or the harsh economic consequences brought about by the one-child policy.
Media often reported stories of unspeakable brutality by local officials against pregnant women and families who violated the policy — a unique savagery captured in Ma Jian’s novel “The Dark Road.” In a much-publicized 2012 case, local officials in Shaanxi province forced a woman to undergo an abortion seven months into her pregnancy.
Beyond physical and emotional trauma, violators of the one-child policy — who are most often among the country’s poorest — face serious economic penalties. Provincial sampling suggests that the Chinese government collects about $3 billion per year in family-planning fines. And local officials in many localities explicitly threaten violators with other harsh punishments, including destruction of their houses and confiscation of their farm animals.
The one-child policy’s long-term demographic consequences have been devastating as well. According to official data, China’s old-age dependency ratio — the ratio of those aged 65 and up to working-age people (aged 15 to 64) — currently stands at 13 percent. As the one-child generation ages — adding some 10 million retirees annually — this ratio will skyrocket, with the labor surplus that supported China’s economic miracle giving way to a severe shortage that depresses growth.
Equally problematic is China’s alarming gender imbalance. Families’ preference that their one child be male led to innumerable sex-selective abortions, as well as female infanticide and abandonment. As of 2013, all males from newborns to age 24 outnumbered girls by 23 million, implying that more than 20 million young men will not be able to find marriage partners in the coming decades.
The most sobering lesson from this tally of the one-child policy’s toll lies in the simple fact the authorities were able to enforce it for so long. China is the only country in history where a government has actually succeeded in using coercion to limit its people’s reproductive choices. The key is its unconstrained one-party regime, underpinned by a huge and powerful bureaucracy.
Outside observers often marvel at the CCP’s capacity to get things done — at least when those things are the construction of supermodern cities and a high-speed rail network. Seldom do they note the disastrous consequences when the party applies its power in stubborn pursuit of a brutal and destructive objective.
Now is the time to recognize those consequences, particularly given that China’s leaders are not done limiting their citizens’ reproductive choices. On the contrary, they are simply moving from a one-child policy to a two-child policy. Outsiders and Chinese alike must emphasize the senseless cruelty that such measures imply and work to ensure that they are never seen again — in China or anywhere else.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. © Project Syndicate, 2015