China’s one-child policy has always been controversial on human rights grounds, but to central planners it was an unpleasant necessity. Where Mao supported population growth with the argument that a human had “one mouth, two hands,” his followers were horrified by the population explosion that ensued, composed as it was mostly of poor peasants.
Chinese leaders have rarely been intimidated by nature, human or otherwise; where Mao tried to eliminate sparrows, Deng and his reformers tried to block the human reproductive drive through policy. Now the whole project is being reconsidered. It may be too late.
As with the campaign against the sparrows, the one-child policy had unintended consequences. If it was intended to buttress women’s rights, it was a signal failure. Setting aside the question of whether the right to decide childbirth in either direction is a woman’s right, it unquestionably resulted in massive abortions of female fetuses, and an ensuing gender imbalance.
If it was intended to reduce demand placed on natural resources, it also failed. China’s current greed for resources is not driven by the consumption demand of the average citizen, but by inefficient heavy industry and sloppily insulated buildings. Thus energy demand has increased alarmingly even as population growth has slowed. Furthermore, as the US shows, one can consume far more than China does with only a sixth of the people.
Now the central government is considering relaxing the policy and allowing families to start having two children – indeed, Shanghai, alarmed by its burgeoning elderly population, has already done so. Beijing is concerned that solving one demographic problem has created another: China is now on course to be the first country in the world to “get old before it gets rich.”
Unfortunately, as some European governments are now learning, it is easier for governments to discourage childbirth than to encourage it. Poverty, and its attendant insecurity, appears to be more a cause of overpopulation than an effect. Once children become a net expense, as opposed to additions to the family workforce, people tend to have fewer of them. The Chinese middle class is no exception.
The relaxation of the policy is a good thing, but it is unlikely to save China from the consequences. Getting old seems unavoidable; China should focus on how to get sustainably rich.