Even With One-Child Policy Lifted, China Becoming 'World's Largest Old-Age Home'

Ma Zhen plays with her son at an indoor playground in Beijing October 30. She says she does not plan to have a second child, even as China ends its one-child policy. Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters

As a symbol of the coercive state—an authoritarian government dictating the most intimate decisions a person can make—not much could surpass the People's Republic of China's one-child policy. The government commenced the policy in 1979 in order to arrest soaring population growth in what was then a very poor country. The Chinese government says 400 million births were prevented. When the one-child policy began, China aimed to limit its population in the year 2000 to 1.2 billion. The population in 2000 was 1.26 billion.

But for all the ostensible success of the policy—some demographers claim China's population growth would have flattened out even without it—the draconian rule left emotional, social and economic scars the country and its citizens will be dealing with for years. Its consequences are felt throughout China, particularly in poorer rural areas, where its enforcement was often particularly brutal.

Last year, in a case that received widespread attention on social media, a farmer from Guizhou province in southwest China, Wang Guang Rong, committed suicide after local authorities would not allow his children to attend public schools without paying the fines levied on families that had violated the policy. Wang and his wife had four children—not commonplace in China—as they tried and finally succeeded to have a boy after their three daughters were born. (In a Confucian, patriarchal society like China's, the desire for male offspring is close to being hardwired.) Wang, 37, was ordered to pay 22,500 renminbi—the equivalent of $3,500—money he didn't have. On March 3, 2014, he slit his wrists, leaving his four children fatherless.

Related: China's One-Child Policy and American Adoptees

In many rural towns, officials frequently forced mothers to have abortions rather than carry a second child to term. Forced sterilizations were also common. The zealous enforcement of the one-child policy frequently brought Beijing attention it didn't want. In 2005, a blind, self-educated lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, organized a class-action suit on behalf of peasant women in Shandong province who had been forced to have abortions.

The government reacted furiously. It arrested Chen and convicted him of "'damaging property and organizing a mob." He spent four years in jail, then spent two years under house arrest. In 2012 he escaped and fled to the U.S. embassy. Beijing reluctantly allowed Chen to emigrate to the U.S.

The social consequences of the policy were profound. Because China is a patriarchal society, infanticide—the disposal of newborn baby girls—became an epidemic. One result is the imbalance between young men and women. In 2009, there were more than 119 boys born for every 100 girls. By 2020, according to the China Academy of Social Sciences, a leading government-affiliated think tank, more than 24 million men will find themselves unable to find a spouse because of the gender imbalance.

The even greater demographic distortion directly attributable to the one-child policy—which the government cited in its announcement—is the rapid aging of Chinese society. About 10 percent of the population is older than 65, and that number is about to increase sharply—15 percent by 2027 and 20 percent by 2035. Fan Bao, the chief executive of China Renaissance, a Shanghai-based investment bank, says China's future is that of the "world's largest old-age home."

A street vendor awaits customers beneath a billboard exhorting people to adhere to China's one-child policy, in Lanzhou, China on August 4, 1988. China recently lifted the policy, allowing families to have a second child. Mark Avery/AP

The burdens of caring for the residents of that home will fall significantly on the one-child generation: Married couples born in the 1980s will have to care for four parents, themselves and their own children. That's part of the reason the recent change in policy is unlikely to have a dramatic effect on China's population anytime soon, never mind what the government's goals are. On WeChat, China's pre-eminent social media platform, commentary and jokes about the policy change abounded in the immediate aftermath of the October 29 announcement. "As a member of the 'screwed generation,' I hereby announce my intention not to have another child," said one Li Feng Wei, a Shanghai resident.

The other force working against a rapid demographic shift is the cost of living in urban China. On top of the all the familial responsibilities, new entrants into the workforce complain bitterly about the price of housing in China's largest cities—despite what has been a pronounced cooling off of what had been a real estate boom over the past decade. In an unscientific snap online poll on Sina News, a popular news portal, 43 percent of more than 160,000 respondents said they would not be taking advantage of the opportunity to have a second child, while 29 percent said they would. The remainder said they'd wait and see.

Chen Li, a 28-year-old mechanical engineer in the eastern city of Hangzhou, was among those unmoved by the policy change. "I can't even afford to buy an apartment and have one child," he said. "Having two is a fantasy."

China had already eased its one-child policy a bit in recent years. Couples who were both only children have been able to have two children for several years now. The evidence thus far suggests that the reluctance to have more than one is real, not merely anecdotal. According to a study by Stuart Basten, a demographer at Oxford University, the fertility rate for couples who were both only children was 0.64 in 2003, and that rose to just 0.89 by 2007. The family planning commission polled 38,000 couples in 2008 and found that just 19 percent of them wanted to have more than one child.

The new policy does not rid China of the family planning bureaucracy that has presided over the controversial population policy. Beijing has simply replaced the one-child policy with a two-child policy. "The fundamentals of family planning as a restrictive and coercive policy have not changed," says Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch Asia.

That said, there will be millions of Chinese citizens delighted to have a second child. The country's economic ascent over the last three decades has created a large class of solidly middle and upper middle class citizens who can afford a second child. So give the government credit for that. But China's grim demographics are among its most daunting problems, and this change—as overdue as it might have been—will not come close to fixing them anytime soon.