End of China's One-Child Rule: Too Little, Too Late

A family takes a "selfie" next to a boy in front of a giant basket of flowers on display at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on September 29, 2014. China's Communist Party recently announced the end of its one-child policy, but it will be decades before an increase in births will be felt on the economy, the author writes. Jason Lee/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Anything Peaceful site.

China's Communist Party has announced the end of its one-child policy. The population control measure, introduced in 1979, led to widespread sex-selective abortions, female infanticide, child abandonment and forced abortions and sterilizations.

The CBC reports:

The decision is the most significant easing of family-planning policies that were long considered some of the party's most onerous intrusions into family life and had been gradually relaxed in recent years.

The restrictions led to an imbalanced sex ratio because of a traditional preference for boys, and draconian enforcement that sometimes included forced abortions.

A Beijing committee ruled that couples will now be allowed to have up to two children, but it isn't yet clear whether the enforcement of population control—including crippling fines, loss of employment and compulsory abortions—will also be relaxed for those who violate the two-child limit.

The measure led to numerous unintended consequences, including a heavily male-skewed gender ratio and a rapidly aging population. China has the world's largest population and also the world's most sex-imbalanced: 118 males for every 100 females.

China has the world's largest population. Source: The Brookings Institution Anything Peaceful

This, in turn, led to slow growth of the population and the labor force, thus causing the population to skew older. China is facing a major demographic crisis as a result, with more and more elderly people being supported by fewer young workers.

The heavily male-biased younger population is also likely responsible for a doubling of China's crime rate in the last 20 years.

As the country heads into a sharp recession, Beijing is flailing for some way to spur economic growth and avert the looming demographic crisis. The decision to relax population control was likely motivated by economic concerns, in an attempt to spur economic growth through population growth. The CBC explains:

The statement followed the panel's meeting this week to chart the country's economic and social development through 2020. In recent years, it has been unusual for such plenary sessions to result in major decisions. They generally focus on economic topics and there was no indication that this one would take action on the one-child policy.

It's truly wonderful that parents will have more freedom to choose their families, but it's probably too late to avoid the economic consequences of the distorted demographics.

As China's economy has liberalized, incomes have exploded, and countries' birthrates naturally decline with rising wealth. It's not clear if repealing the one-child rule will actually cause a significant population boom at this point. China's lost generations (and, notably, lost women) probably cannot be recovered.

Even if there is an increase in births, it will be decades before the effect will be felt on the economy.

"The good news is, it is here. The bad news is, it is too little, too late," said Cai Yong, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"It's better late than never," said Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "It might serve to address the current imbalance in the sense that if they do not boost the growth rate, then very soon, within 20 years or less, the working population will be supporting four aged parents."

It's a great thing that this repressive policy has finally been relaxed, but the damage—immense, cruel and spanning decades—has been done. It's time for celebration, but also for a sober reckoning of the dangerous and destructive results of the state's power to control and plan human life.

Daniel Bier is editor of the Anything Peaceful blog on the Foundation for Economic Education site.

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