China’s Disastrous One-Child Policy

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Since 1979, China has engaged in a gigantic social experiment the likes of which humanity has never seen. Stemming from fears of overpopulation and an inability to feed its own people, the communist Chinese government imposed a one-child policy. Recently, China announced an end to the policy; any couple can now have two children, provided that one of the parents is an only child.

What lessons should the world take away from China’s experiment? An analysis by Michael Gross in Current Biology is worth reading, though it misses one key point.

First, the part that Gross misses: He claims that the one-child policy was “successful in averting an imminent population disaster.” That certainly might be true, but China’s government bears an enormous responsibility for putting the country in such a wretched state to begin with. Communism has not been good to China. The following figure compares the GDP per capita of the United States and China for the years 1960 to 2012 (adjusted to U.S. dollars in the year 2000):

(Via Wolfram Alpha)

As shown in the figure, China was almost a completely impoverished nation until very recently, when GDP per capita started to climb. (For dramatic images comparing the Shanghai skyline in 1987 to that in 2013, click here.) Today, the Chinese economy is doing much better, largely thanks to reforms that helped liberalize the economy. Yet, hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens are still desperately poor. That is one reason why China’s GDP per capita is still far lower than that of the U.S.

So, while it may be true that the one-child policy averted immediate disaster, it was a bad government solution to a problem largely created by bad policies. The far better option would have been to implement even greater economic reforms, encouraging faster growth. A growing economy will create wealthier and more educated people, and those types of people tend to have fewer children. Europe, for instance, has a very low fertility rate, and Europeans have chosen to do this of their own volition; no population control policies were required.

Gross goes on to discuss three important demographic challenges that the one-child policy created: A generation of “little emperors,” an inversion of the age pyramid, and skewed gender ratios.

The “little emperor” generation refers to the fact that so many young Chinese people grew up as the only child. The effect of having a society full of people without any siblings is just now beginning to be understood. According to Gross, the “little emperor” generation is “less altruistic, less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse and less competitive than the generations born before 1979.”

The inversion of the age pyramid is the second major demographic problem that Gross identifies. Basically, it means that there are too many elderly people and not enough young, working people to support them.

Finally, Gross touches upon a third, and perhaps China’s biggest, demographic challenge: There is a “shortage” of women due to the one-child policy. Typically, normal biology produces about 105 to 107 human males for every 100 females. But, in China, that ratio is skewed to 115 males for every 100 females. This is because Chinese parents prefer to have boys, and they selectively abort baby girls. In some regions, the ratio is as lopsided as 130 to 100. How Chinese society will respond to this problem remains to be seen.

Gross correctly concludes that “the best hope for tighter population control is probably that development will naturally reduce the family size everywhere.” It’s too bad that the Chinese government didn’t figure that out 35 years ago.

Source: Michael Gross. “Where Next for China’s Population Policy?” Current Biology 24 (3): R97-R100. 3-February-2014. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2014.01.035