China, Leave those Wombs Alone

Harvard University’s Michael Szonyi writes in Foreign Policy that reforms must go further than replacing one misguided policy with another.

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This article was originally published in Foreign Policy on November 2, 2015.

According to the news out of Beijing, the biggest demographic experiment in the history of the world is about to come to an end. At the conclusion of its annual plenum in Beijing last week, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, the ruling party’s top policy-making body, announced in a communiqué its decision to scrap China’s controversial birth policy. Official news agency Xinhua described the shift as China’s “abandoning its decades-long one-child policy.”

This does not mean that Chinese people will now be able to make their own decisions about childbirth. The early indications are that this is not the end of government control of population in China — merely an adjustment. A whole series of previous reforms already allow specific groups — rural families, ethnic minorities, parents of disabled children and others — to have two children. The current move simply extends the two-child option to all families.

The One-Child Policy was introduced in the late 1970s at a time of Malthusian panic, in the West as well as in China, about an impending global population explosion. The danger was thought to be especially acute in China, where for decades late Communist strongman Mao Zedong had been encouraging people to have more children. China’s new, post-Mao leadership under Deng Xiaoping was understandably worried that Deng’s reform policies would be undermined if a surging population gobbled up all the gains from economic growth.

The term “One-Child Policy” became widely used in the West to describe the draconian system of management and control that resulted, but in China the term used was, and continues to be, “Reproductive Planning” (jihua shengyu). As my Harvard colleague Susan Greenhalgh has shown in her book Just One Child, the leadership, many of them trained in Marxist economics, believed that population was something that could be managed like any other aspect of the planned economy.

Too little grain? Plant more rice. Too few locomotives? Increase steel production. Too many people? Implement planned reproduction.

Too little grain? Plant more rice. Too few locomotives? Increase steel production. Too many people? Implement planned reproduction.

Since then, Chinese authorities have given the market an ever-greater role in allocating economic resources. But keeping a lid on population growth has always seemed too important for the Party to give up control, and that still hasn’t changed.

While the Chinese government credits its birth control policy — which created enormous suffering and resentment, not to mention horrific episodes of forced abortion and sterilization as part of enforcement — with reducing China’s population by 400 million, the reality is that it was probably unnecessary. The evidence from virtually every country in the world, including other Confucian-influenced societies in East Asia, shows that when incomes rise, and when girls get a good education and have opportunities for employment, birth rates fall rapidly. As a result the worldwide demographic apocalypse never arrived — or at least not in those places with good governance and growing economies.

Whether or not it was effective on its terms, China’s policy has created a demographic time-bomb (and a host of other problems, including the most distorted sex ratio in history). As Chinese state press notes, reform is needed to “balance population development and address the challenge of an ageing population.” China is rapidly becoming what demographers call an “ultra-aged” society, in which more than 20 percent of the population is 65 or older. By 2050 China will have more than 300 million people over the age of 65. Meanwhile the working-age population has already started to shrink, meaning China will have fewer workers to care for more elderly people. This turning point is coming at a much earlier phase in China’s development than it did in places like Japan.

This will have huge consequences for China, and for the world. As China’s labor pool shrinks and the cost of social welfare rises, economic growth is sure to slow further. If the loss of China’s low-cost labor advantage means Chinese exports can no longer grow on the basis of price, China will have to compete on quality instead. Government efforts to create an “innovation society” are all about recognizing and dealing with this fact. The reforms announced this week show that the pendulum of Chinese leadership opinion has swung. They used to worry that China would have too many people. Now they worry that it will have too few. The policy change is an implicit recognition of the long-term problems that their own policies have created.

But the new reforms probably won’t work. Leading Chinese demographers have found that only a tiny fraction of couples eligible for a second child under the previous policy have actually taken advantage of the policy — one estimate put that number at a merely five percent.

Of course, it is too early to say for sure whether more prospective parents might come around to the idea of a larger family. But at a time when economic insecurity is rising, the costs of raising a child are exploding (by some estimates it now costs over $3,700 per year to raise a child in China) and popular expectations about enjoying a middle-class lifestyle spreading, it turns out that many young Chinese couples think that having one child — or even no children — is the right choice. In other words, Chinese parents think much like their counterparts everywhere else.

Population, as the Party will soon learn, is not a faucet that can be turned off and then on again by government fiat.

Population, as the Party will soon learn, is not a faucet that can be turned off and then on again by government fiat.

If the announced policy reform is indeed simply a shift to a “Two-Child Policy,” then China’s enormous reproductive planning apparatus, with its hundreds of thousands of cadres monitoring, reporting, and planning the personal lives of China’s citizens, will remain in place. The abuse of power by officials within this system has mostly been curtailed, though reports of occasional offenses including forced late-term abortion and detention continue to emerge. Even if, as has been reported, these cadres add childhood-development counseling to their toolkit, the apparatus they inhabit will grow ever more incongruous in a country where people have come to expect freedom and privacy in many other spheres of private life, from whom they choose to marry and befriend to how they choose to spend their time and money.

The Central Committee’s recent communiqué promises to achieve “development for the people, by the people, and shared by the entire population.” Ending the One-Child Policy is definitely a step in this direction. But it would be even better for the Chinese government to get out of the business of population management altogether. Allowing families to make their own decisions about how many children to have would be good for China’s future, and for its people.

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy on November 2, 2015.