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It is the latest twist in the most ambitious and ruthless social-engineering program ever undertaken by a modern state: Beijing announced Thursday that the Chinese Communist Party will officially abandon its one-child policy. Yet it has no plans to relinquish authority over its subjects’ birth patterns; rather, Beijing has simply changed the ration. Now two children per family will be permitted.
The first partial relaxation came two years ago, when Chinese authorities decreed that spouses who were both an only child would be allowed to have two children. This fine-tuning was expected to result in several million additional births—but only a fraction of that number of couples even applied for a second ration coupon. Now, after 3½ decades of attempted one-child enforcement, the government can no longer ignore that its policy of forcible population control has been a disaster. As the Communist Party prepares for its 13th five-year plan, it must survey what its quest to remold the Chinese family has wrought.
The one-child mandate is the single greatest social-policy error in human history. AfterMao Zedong’s death in 1976, his legatees were horrified to discover how little they had inherited. Despite almost three decades of “socialist construction,” China was still overwhelmingly rural and desperately poor. More than 97% of the country lived below the World Bank’s notional $1.25 a day threshold for absolute poverty, according to recent Chinese estimates. With a population still rapidly growing, China seemed on the brink of losing the race between mouths and food.
In their attempt to process these facts, Chinese leaders stumbled into an elementary neo-Malthusian misdiagnosis. Rather than focus solely on undoing the crushing inefficiencies of their Maoist economy, they blamed abysmal productivity on the childbearing patterns of their subjects. The outcome was involuntary birth control, promulgated through a vast scheme of quotas and an army of family-planning agents.
This was Socialist “scientism”—ideology masquerading as science—of the highest order. The broad outline was established on calculations by a Moscow-minted engineer in China’s nuclear program. These computations bore no relation to the actual ways in which Chinese men and women thought about family life. As soon as the policy was rolled out in 1980 and 1981, it collided with human realities.
First came alarming reports that female infanticide, an ancient practice, had once again erupted throughout the countryside. China’s 1982 census, released some years later, showed an unnatural imbalance in the sex ratio for birth-year 1981 on the order of hundreds of thousands of missing baby girls.
Infanticide was then replaced by mass sex-selective abortion, made possible in the late 1980s by increased rural access to ultrasound machines. China’s sex ratio climbed to nearly 120 baby boys for every 100 baby girls, where it plateaued around 2000. Although a war against baby girls is evident in other countries—India and Taiwan among them—leading Chinese demographers have suggested that half or more of China’s imbalance may directly result from the one-child policy.
The precise long-term effects have yet to be accurately estimated. Chinese authorities claim that the country has 400 million fewer people due to the one-child policy, because they have overseen that many abortions. But this misleading metric ignores the distinction between forced and voluntary abortions.
To the extent that the policy has achieved its objective, it magnified the demographic problems that Communist planners are apparently only now beginning to acknowledge. Fertility levels in urban China were already well below replacement by 1980. Today the country is on track to go gray at a shocking tempo. Two years ago, working-age manpower began to decline, according to Chinese authorities. The only close comparator is post-bubble Japan: not a cheering vision for what remains a relatively poor society.
And China’s cities are now producing a new family type utterly unfamiliar to Chinese history: only children begotten by only children. They have no siblings, cousins, uncles or aunts, only ancestors (and perhaps, one day, descendants). But in a low-trust society, extended social networks, known in Chinese as guanxi, play a vital economic role. They reduce uncertainty and transaction costs by providing the reassurance supplied elsewhere by rule of law and transparency. How will Chinese economic performance be affected by the atrophy of the extended family?
Beijing’s latest adjustments to population plans seem to have been prompted by economic concerns, yet these changes will have only modest demographic repercussions. Like other East Asian locales without forced population control, the average desired family size in China appears to be far below replacement. Beijing also can’t rely on immigration for demographic help. Even modest gains from the new policy will take decades to have an economic impact.
Contemporary China has a host of top-flight demographers and population economists—and so far as I can tell, almost all are critics of their country’s population program. Some are concerned with human-rights violations; most pragmatically regard the one-child policy as painfully, obviously counterproductive. A number of these experts wrote a letter to the State Council a decade ago urging “reconsideration” (translation: complete scrapping) of the one-child norm—to no effect.
Why has Beijing stubbornly ignored the advice of its own top talent? My baffled Chinese colleagues speculate on possible explanations: the difficulty of re-tasking the vast army of population-control bureaucrats; the value of the hefty fines exacted for out-of-quota births; the neo-Malthusian ideology to which China’s bosses still seem to be slave.
All of these are plausible, but they overlook a key piece: the Chinese government’s undying claim to totalitarian control over the most basic details of its subjects’ lives, revealed as well by the retrograde hukou system of residence permits that makes urban China’s migrant workers illegal aliens in their own country. For all the talk of “reforming”—and we have been hearing it overseas for almost two decades now—the Chinese government has been unwilling to dispense with these instruments of social control precisely because they are instruments of social control.
The “fatal conceit” (to borrow Friedrich Hayek’s term) of China’s population planners was that they could micro-calibrate the behavior of the men and women under their command. The new two-child policy suffers the same flaw. As long as Beijing deforms Chinese society with these misbegotten tools, the nation’s future will be compromised, poorer and sadder than it otherwise could be.
Mr. Eberstadt is a political economist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.
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