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This week the Chinese government announced an end to their decades-long ‘one child’ policy and now will allow each married couple to have two children. The highly-controversial policy was introduced across China almost 40 years ago in an effort to rein in what had been explosive population growth. The leadership of China feared that the country was on a path to be unable to feed everyone.
So the law was made. And it worked.
Estimates indicate approximately 400 million births were prevented by the policy. Of course, not everyone participated was willing to do so, and many Chinese couples might done things differently if they could have chosen. But enforcement of the policy was draconian. Couples who violated it could be fined, or lose their employment. Some were faced with forced sterilizations and abortions to prevent unlawful births. Stories about infanticide have circulated for years.
And now, even with all those births prevented, China is still the world’s most populous country. There are approximately 1.361 billion Chinese— that’s over a billion more people than in the United States. So it begs a question: Why end the policy now?
There are powerful reasons, but in short, a looming demographic crunch that threatens the welfare of the world’s second largest economy. Much of the change that actually happened because of the ‘one child’ law appear to be unanticipated and, in retrospect, certainly unwanted.
It is always difficult to predict change on a large scale—remember “Chaos Theory” from the original Jurassic Park? So many elements can disrupt a planned outcome, especially when it involves legislation stringently applied to a large group of individuals.
So what happened in China?
Social pressure to have boys coupled with the ‘one child’ law resulted in a serious misalignment with natural birth rates: last year in China 116 boys were born for every 100 girls. Compare this to the World Health Organization’s natural rate of 105 to 100.
In theory, more boys, less girls, equals less births overall. And in fact, China’s fertility rate was 1.7 in 2013, according to World Bank data. For comparison, the U.S. is 1.9. In short, the population through birth in both countries is dropping—but China’s is dropping significantly more than in the U.S.
Okay, but wasn’t that part of the plan?
Not really, at least not all of it.
The ratio of males to females in China is already out of whack, and projections show that over the coming two decades, the Chinese sex ratio will be so imbalanced that there will be millions of extra young men—almost 15% of the total population—that will not be able to marry simply because there are not enough females.
A lot of these males have been put to work, and no doubt contributed to the labor-driven economic boom in China. But not all of the economic growth was wanted.
With more Chinese males than females, it seems young Chinese men are more likely to engage in commercial sex. This has led to a growing market for female trafficking. Women from nearby countries– Vietnam, Laos, Singapore, Mongolia, North Korea–are brought to China for the growing sex trade. In 2013, the U.S. Department of State called China one of the world’s worst offenders in dealing with human trafficking.
“China has become the sex- and labor-trafficking capital of the world,” said U.S. Representative Chris Smith, R-N.J.
Another unintended consequence now is habits, once driven in, are hard to break. And with the growth of the overall economy, many married Chinese couples now say they do not intend to have a second child, even with the end of the ‘one child’ laws. It’s simply too expensive.
After 4 decades of government-driven regulation of bedroom affairs, smaller nuclear families are the new norm. That means fewer young to take care of the older, and a potential elder care crisis. The working age population of China peaked in 2012. That means fewer gainfully employed Chinese to contribute to the care of parents, older relatives, and indeed the tax rolls for the entire country. China has almost 200 million people over the age of 60—the largest near-retirement or retired age group in the world.
You have to wonder: didn’t China see all this coming? In retrospect, it sounds like a slow speed collision that could have been easily avoided. An observer would be hard pressed to deny that the Chinese response was far too little, too late.
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This is more or less the opposite of the Chinese government’s approach to the problems that were created over the years by the ‘one child policy.’
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