China has replaced its “one-child policy” with a two-child one. It should stop dictating family size altogether FOR more than 35 years, the Chinese Communist Party has governed the world’s most-populous nation by means of a thinly disguised threat: the country could become rich only if most couples limited themselves to having no more than one child. If they disobeyed, women were forced to undergo abortions; parents were subject to fines equivalent to several years’ income and sometimes dismissed from their jobs; in the countryside, the homes of poor peasants who could not afford the penalties were occasionally stripped of anything of value and then knocked down. The “one-child policy”, as the benighted approach to the country’s development was known, became synonymous with some of the most brutal aspects of the party’s rule. The bitter irony is that China’s problem today is too few babies, not too many.
On October 29th the party belatedly decided to switch to a two-child policy. It had already been allowing this for some couples—for example, if one of the parents was an only child. Easing up a bit more, it reasoned, would help slow the country’s rapid ageing. More children would (eventually) mean more people to look after the elderly—a looming problem in a country with only a rudimentary welfare system. Once again, however, the party has miscalculated.
In 1979, when it introduced the one-child policy, it believed that coercion was the only way to ensure that population growth did not become unsustainable. The party has since claimed that the policy has helped prevent 400m births.
In fact, there is little evidence to back this claim. China’s birth rate had been falling rapidly since the early 1970s with the help of little more than education campaigns. The birth rate continued to fall under the new policy, but other countries have seen similar declines without resorting to cruelty and oppression. Their experience suggests that the more important factors behind China’s lower birth rate were rising female participation in the workforce, improvements in education, later marriages and the rapidly increasing cost of education and housing. The main effect of the one-child policy was to foster egregious human-rights abuses against the minority who ignored it.
By that measure, the new policy is also misguided. Some couples may feel encouraged to have two children, but it is unlikely that the overall birth rate—now well below the level needed to keep the population from falling—will climb by much (see article). This is clear from the lukewarm response to previous changes allowing couples to have two children in certain circumstances. A generation has grown up indoctrinated in the belief that China has “too many people”. Except for the very rich, most prefer to use their family’s resources (increasingly stretched by the demands of the elderly) to give one child the best opportunities.
A bitter pill
Bizarrely, the party still believes that coercion remains necessary. Those who have had two children in violation of the previous policy will still have to pay off their fines. It is likely that those who have three children will be punished. There is no evidence that lifting these controls would result in a crippling population surge. So the party’s insistence on maintaining them appears mostly a way of demonstrating power and saving face—as well as the jobs of the 1m-strong army of family-planning officials, who thrive on issuing fines.
The party would struggle to admit that the world’s biggest attempt at demographic engineering has failed. But that is what it must do by lifting the remaining restrictions. Not for the sake of boosting the birth rate—it may well be too late for that. Rather because, after forcing so many Chinese to suffer to such little effect, a disastrous policy deserves to be abolished.