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Four decades ago, China entranced the world as its then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping opened up the country to foreign investors and focused on modernization. Part of his strategy was a blanket one-child policy to ensure that economic development would not be nullified by an exploding population which, at the time, was nearing a billion people.

The one-child policy was implemented through draconian acts, including very late-term abortions, forcible sterilization and grossly humiliating treatment of hundreds of millions of women. At the household level, many girl babies were killed or abandoned in the hope that the next one would be a boy. Some lucky ones were adopted by foreign couples.

For over three decades, the Communist Party refused to budge, even though it had long been obvious that the policy was resulting in a large discrepancy in sex ratios at birth. Today, there are 30 million men with no chance of getting a wife because the women were never born.

The party boasted that its measures prevented 400 million potential births, thereby greatly reducing shortages of food and water and minimizing costs to the environment. But it has not measured the price paid in human terms.

Now, the chickens are coming home to roost, with an aging population, a shrinking workforce and an urban pension system in danger of collapse. The Communist Party — admitting no mistake on its part — five years ago announced a “two-child policy,” which hasn’t had the desired result. Last month, it announced a “three-child policy.” But women who refused to have a second child won’t be enticed by the prospect of a third.

The problem is that there are proportionately far fewer women today than in 1979, before the “one-child policy” was imposed. Preference for boys means that fewer girls were born — and reduced females naturally led to fewer children.

This process went on from one generation to another. Sex-selected births resulted in proportionately fewer girls in every cohort.

Today’s women of child-bearing age have had drilled into them the virtue of late marriage and delayed arrival of any baby. It will be difficult for the party to undo its own propaganda now to encourage more births.

The slowing in population growth is obvious. Last month, China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported based on the latest census findings that there were 12 million births in 2020, down significantly from 18 million in 2016 and the lowest number since the 1960s.

China has now a fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman, well below the replacement level of 2.1.

To be sure, China is not the only country facing an aging problem. Other societies, such as Japan and South Korea in Asia as well as Germany and Italy in Europe, also face severe aging problems.

But those are developed countries, which have lower fertility levels. China is still a developing country. More than 600 million people, or roughly 40% of the population, live on $140 per month or less.

The working-age population has been declining since 2012, with dire implications for growth.

Other countries, perhaps, can replace quantity with quality, but according to a new book “Invisible China,” by Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell, the Chinese labor force has one of the lowest levels of education of any comparable country, with only 30% of workers having completed high school.

China has simply not invested enough in its people. As a result, China is aging before it can become rich.

That is in large part a self-inflicted problem. In fact, the Chinese government acknowledged in 2016 — the year the “one child policy” ended — that China’s pace of aging was significantly higher than the world average.

One problem is that the party views people not as individual human beings but as tools to be manipulated to suit party policy at different times.

The party holds up as role model the soldier Lei Feng, who supposedly wrote in his diary, “My only ambition is to be a rustless screw for the great cause of revolution.”

As for women, Chinese leader Xi Jinping made it clear on International Women’s Day how the party sees their role. “Without women,” he said, “there would be no continuity of the human race.” Would he have said the same thing about men?

Even now, the government insists on intruding into private matters, including childbirth. At a time when the party wants more births, it still makes it illegal to have a fourth baby.

The party wants to let the Chinese people know that it is in charge of their lives, not they.

Frank Ching is a U.S. journalist based in Hong Kong who frequently writes on China-related issues.

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