Half a world away from the factories that churn out the world’s wares, I often see an entire Chinese-American family toiling at a local strip mall beauty shop. My family goes there fairly often, and as a result, we’ve grown fairly close. We regularly exchange stories about our cultures and the shared immigrant mentality that our two families have in common. One day while chatting with the owner, I committed an enormous social faux pas when I inquired if she had any siblings. If you know anything about modern mainland China, that is perhaps the most ignorant question you can ask a person of Chinese extraction. For more than 30 years, it was against the law to have more than one child for the vast majority of Chinese citizens. This law is known as the one child policy.
Right after the words came out of my mouth, I proceeded to apologize profusely about my silly question. But much to my surprise, the shop owner began to tell me about her brother. She told me a gut-wrenching story about how her mother hid in a roof-top water tank to avoid the authorities who had come to perform a forced abortion. Her mother was nearly nine months pregnant at the time, but because she had violated the one child policy, the baby would be terminated.
Fortunately, she hid long enough that she saved her baby, but millions of others haven’t been as lucky. The one child policy has inflicted enormous pain on ordinary people all over China in an effort to control runaway population growth. The government has been moving away from forced abortions since a horror story much like the one you just heard was made public in 2012.
Fortunately, the arrival of 2016 marks the end of the one child policy. The Chinese government has moved to allow each married couple to legally have two children. This will bring much needed demographic rejuvenation to China, which is in big trouble demographically. More than 30 years of the one child policy has produced a very skewed population distribution.
Today, China faces significant demographic challenges in spite of their change in policy. Modern China needs to stoke population growth if it wants to avoid having too few workers in relation to retirees in coming years. For anyone that knows about demographics, having too many retired folk without enough workers to support them is a recipe for disaster.
Some say the one child policy was needed when it was enacted at the end of the 1970’s. According to some estimates, it’s prevented over 400 million births. But this artificial demographic planning has come a large cost, as it’s widely recognized that the one child policy has had many unintended consequences.
For instance, there’s a massive gender imbalance because people have selectively terminated pregnancies in favor of having boys. That’s because families in China prefer sons, who can support them when they get old. That means that many Chinese men have a hard time finding a wife. Hopefully, the resulting “youth-bulge” that will occur following the reversal of the one child policy will be more gender-balanced or the fallout can be significant. Countries with a male-heavy demographic are more likely to endure civil unrest, war, and instability.
Population growth is key to sustaining Chinese power. There’s little doubt that China’s impressive manufacturing sector has significantly contributed to global economic growth in recent years and that inexpensive, mass produced Chinese wares have revolutionized our way of life (It’s likely you’re reading this article on a China-made electronic device). Cheap labor has always been the centerpiece of the manufacturing model in China. Therefore, without sustained population growth, China’s ability to manufacture competitively will be in grave danger. In other countries, immigration usually picks up the slack when population growth falls, but China is not a popular destination for global migrants in the slightest.
This century’s economic success story has been all about China. The Chinese government has pulled millions out of poverty and created the second-most important economy on Earth. While it’s a wise and moral move for the Chinese government to get rid of the one child policy (although obviously fixing any maximum number of children parents may have is still problematic), it may have come too late to avoid demographic calamity. Consider neighboring Japan, where adult diapers outsell baby diapers. It’s not surprising that Japan’s economy continues to languish because economic growth is nearly impossible with a shrinking population. For China, a country that’s obsessed with economic growth, the reversal of the one child policy may have come too late to ensure healthy demographics and sustainable economic growth for future generations.
Photo by Arian Zwegers
David is the Editor of Bold. He's especially passionate about millennial economic empowerment. A former local news reporter, David is originally from the Little Havana area in Miami, and later became a pioneer resident of the Disney-inspired town of Celebration, Florida. David holds a Master’s in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School.