The Lost Girls

China’s One-Child policy is an epic disaster. Why does it have so many cheerleaders?

Sep 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 02 • By JONATHAN V. LAST

A few weeks ago Vice President Joe Biden made, by his standards, a minor squall when he visited China and held forth on the country’s One-Child policy. Biden didn’t endorse One-Child, exactly, but said that he would not “second guess” it. He wasn’t the first Westerner to look favorably upon the regime. Tom Friedman once mused that One-Child “probably saved China from a population calamity.” The Associated Press lauded it recently as a “boon” to Chinese girls. Others believe One-Child to be so admirable that it ought to be replicated on a global scale. Financial Post columnist Diane Francis, former Planned Parenthood director Norman Fleishman, and Ted Turner—among others—have all said that the entire world ought to adopt China’s One-Child policy.



It’s hard to know what’s at the root of all this admiration. Part of it may be a reaction to the gauche American habit of having children. Push environmentalists hard enough and eventually they devolve into overpopulation hysterics. Or perhaps appreciating One-Child is, like following professional soccer, just a way of peacocking moral superiority.

But the more charitable (and likely) explanation is that people who claim to admire China’s One-Child policy simply don’t know very much about it. Like where it came from. Or how it actually works. Or what it has really done to China’s demographics. Joe Biden may not be willing to second guess One-Child, but many Chinese demographers are doing just that because they are terrified by what it has done to their country. The people who care most about One-Child—the Chinese—spend a lot of time these days not praising the policy but trying to figure a way out of it. Because it turns out that One-Child wasn’t so much a policy as a trap.

The One-Child policy didn’t officially go into effect until September 25, 1980, but it was a long time in the making. Between 1950 and 1970, the average Chinese woman had roughly six children during her lifetime. In the West, this was viewed with alarm, as various Malthusians, from Margaret Sanger to the Ford Foundation to the Club of Rome to Paul Ehrlich, became increasingly haunted by the specter of overpopulation—especially in Asia—in the postwar era. 

China was, for a while, indifferent to these worries. Malthus was viewed as an enemy of the people, rejected by both the Soviets and the Chinese revolutionaries. Both species of Communists viewed the idea of overpopulation as a “false alarm.” But as the Cultural Revolution ground onward, the Chinese gradually became concerned about a problem that population growth presented to their fight for prosperity: Economic gains are easier to see when they aren’t diffused over an increasing number of people.

Beginning in 1970, the government began urging a course of “late, long, few,” instructing women to wait until later in life to have babies, put longer periods of time between births, and have fewer children overall. In a decade, the country’s fertility rate dropped from 5.5 to 2.7. (In order for a society to maintain a stable population, it needs a fertility rate of 2.1. Any higher and population grows; lower and it shrinks.)

As this sea change was taking place, a Chinese scientist named Song Jian was taking an interest in demography. Song was an engineer by training—he got his start in the Ministry of National Defense working on missile technology—and this role protected him during the Cultural Revolution. When the shooting finally stopped he was one of the few academics not in the gulag or the ground. The party came to rely on his work, which increasingly concerned demographics.

In 1975, Song went on a junket to the Netherlands, where he met a mathematician named Geert Jan Olsder. (The story of their meeting is well told in Mara Hvistendahl’s Unnatural Selection.) Olsder specialized in game -theory and was assigned by chance as Song’s host. It was a bit of serendipity: Olsder had recently worked on a game theory problem concerning population. As he explained to Song, he and his colleagues determined that the key to demographic stability was controlling the number, and timing, of births. Song would go on to incorporate Olsder’s theoretical work into his own, which, in turn, shaped the formulation of One-Child. The reason game theory and complicated math were needed is that the One-Child policy is more complicated than it sounds.

Under One-Child, couples wanting a baby were required to obtain permission from local officials first. (In 2002, the government relaxed this provision; you can now have one child without government clearance.) After having a child, urban residents and government employees were forbidden from having another, with some exceptions. In rural areas, for instance, couples were often allowed to have a second baby five years after the first. There are a total of 22 exceptions which allow Chinese to have a second child, but they tend to be narrow: 63 percent of couples are bound to a single child. Any more than two—even for the lucky exceptions—and the government institutes penalties. Sanctions range from heavy fines to confiscation of belongings to dismissal from work. There are reports of violators having the roofs of their houses removed, or their doors and windows walled shut. 

And then there were the forced abortions and sterilizations. On this score, the Chinese government had help from the West. In 1979, as China prepared to roll out One-Child, the government signed an agreement with the United Nations Population Fund, which pledged $50 million to help control births—a euphemism that in practice meant groups of government workers rounding up pregnant women and forcing them to have abortions. The U.N.’s presence opened the door for other Western organizations, including the Ford Foundation and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which poured resources into China in an effort to kill babies. These groups were not unaware of what was happening. The IPPF’s Benjamin Viel wrote admiringly, “Persuasion and motivation [are] very effective in a society in which social sanctions can be applied against those who fail to cooperate in the construction of the socialist state.”

Others were less enamored by what they saw. In January 1980, an official from the IPPF sent a memo of caution to the group’s director. “[V]ery strong measures [are] being taken to reduce population growth—including abortion up to 8 months,” the memo said, before continuing:

I think that in the not-too-distant future this will blow up into a major Press story, as it contains all the ingredients for sensationalism—Communism, forced family planning, murder of viable fetuses, parallels with India, etc. When it does blow up, it is going to be very difficult to defend.

Planned Parenthood’s leadership ignored the warning. But although the story did ultimately blow up, it turned out that it wasn’t so hard to defend after all. Just ask Tom Friedman. Just ask Vice President Biden.

The overall result of this concerted effort is a Chinese fertility rate that now sits somewhere around 1.54, depending on who’s doing the tabulating. Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt notes, “In some major population centers—Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin among them—it appears that the average number of births per woman is amazingly low: below one baby per lifetime.”

All of which brings us to the practical problems of One-Child. For starters, even when you consider the contemporaneous fears of overpopulation, One-Child was not particularly helpful. The Chinese government claims that One-Child has prevented 400 million births over the last 30 years. And it’s possible they’re right. But that number assumes that the Chinese fertility rate would have remained at its 1970 level without the policy. Which seems unlikely.

Chinese fertility was already falling when One-Child was instituted, and the policy certainly steepened the curve. Other projections suggest that it has prevented 100 million births, which isn’t nothing. But either way, One-Child has been a gigantic failure by demographic standards. Whether One-Child was the driving force, or simply responsible for the fertility decline at the margin, the country is now on the brink of radical population shrinkage. By 2050, China will be losing, on net, 20 million people every five years.

And whatever effect One-Child had on China’s fertility rate, it also produced two unexpected changes in the country’s demographic profile.

First, One-Child created an enormous sex imbalance in the population. In nature, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. But in China (and other Asian countries) there is a strong cultural preference for sons. Once Chinese were limited to one or, at most, two children, it became enormously important to parents that their one child be a male heir. The combination of ultrasound technology, which allowed sex-determination in utero, with industrial-scale abortion created an atmosphere in which it was thoroughly routine for mothers to abort female babies. This practice has become so widespread in China that there are a mind-boggling 123 boys born for every 100 girls.

This grisly reality is behind the Associated Press’s happy talk about China being a paradise for girls. The relative scarcity of girls has meant that women are prized and treated exceptionally well by parents, who can devote all their resources to them, and suitors who want to marry them. Things really are great for Chinese girls—if they survive until birth.

China’s sex imbalance means that the country has a large cohort of men for whom marriage will be a statistical impossibility. By the late 2020s nearly one in five Chinese men will be “surplus males.” This has all sorts of cultural consequences—increased violence and political instability historically attend gender imbalances. But from a demographic standpoint, it means that China’s already low fertility rate is functionally lower than it looks—because of the sex disparity among children who are born, many fewer than half will be females who have the opportunity to reproduce.

The other unintended consequence is that One-Child has radically altered China’s age structure, giving it many more old people than young. In 2005, the country’s median age was 32-years-old. By 2050, it will be 45-years-old, and a full quarter of the populace will be over 65. That means 330 million senior citizens, most of whom will have little or no family to care for them.

China has no pension system to speak of and will have only 2 workers per retiree—which isn’t much of a tax base from which to build one. The age ratio may cause a labor shortage, too: In the next 10 years, the number of Chinese aged 20 to 24 will drop by 45 percent. All age-cohorts will shrink, except among the elderly. It is a looming demographic catastrophe—Eberstadt calls it a “slow-motion humanitarian tragedy.” All of these problems are as obvious as they are unavoidable; yet they are rarely acknowledged in the West.

They are not lost on the Chinese. The government has tried to correct the sex imbalance by making sex-determination illegal and allowing rural parents who have a girl first to immediately try for a son. Neither reform has had much effect. The government is now worrying about how to change its demographic trajectory, since it needs new young workers to support the coming wave of retirees and instead is facing imminent population decline.

A group of Chinese demographers, both in the government and at universities, has been cautiously arguing for the last several years that they must reform the One-Child policy in order to escape the demographic trap in which the country is caught.

But they’re not optimistic. One-Child may have altered the foundations of Chinese society to the point of being irreversible. In modern countries with access to contraception and abortion, the theoretical upper limit on a society’s fertility rate is its “ideal fertility”—that is, the number of children women say they would like to have in a perfect world. This ideal number is always higher than achieved fertility, because parents bump into various real-world constraints. For example, although most Western countries have an ideal fertility number above 2, the only Western country with a fertility rate above 2.0 is America.

In 2006, Chinese demographers began studying the Jiangsu province, where couples are allowed to have a second child so long as one of the parents was an only child. They surveyed women who were eligible for a second child, trying to get a handle on what China’s ideal fertility number might be. Among women who could have two children if they wanted, 1.46 was the ideal number.

For the Chinese, this is the scariest number of all because it suggests that even if One-Child were lifted tomorrow, it might not matter. If One-Child has eroded not just real fertility, but even the desire of the Chinese to have children, then there is no way out. Governments have tried coaxing and coercing people into having more children than they want to for centuries and it never—literally never—works.

China’s One-Child policy has been a demographic disaster for China. And the worst is yet to come.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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