There is no doubt that reduced population growth usually correlates with improved standard of living. In the following, we look at what has been the practice of one child families in China and suggest that in broad terms it might be expected to have similar consequences if tried elsewhere. In China, in 1979, when the policy was introduced, the Government of the day claimed it would be a short term measure. China had plenty of reason to want to address the burgeoning population problems at that time. With one quarter of the world’s population occupying 7% of the world’s arable land, two thirds of the population under 30 and the baby boomers about to reach reproductive capacity, they were indeed in a parlous state. The one child per family solution adopted in 1979 was even more stringent than it has become since in that some areas were so populous only a certain number of parents could get permission to extend their family even by one child. In practice there have been some unintended consequences. The current shortage of people likely to be entering the workforce in the next few years has caused a rethink of how long the policy should remain in practice, but the latest official statement I could find from the end of last year talked of keeping the policy in place until at least 2015.
One of the most well known is the imbalance which was created between the sexes of the new born babies. Although extra children can legally be born, the imposition of fairly heavy fines and tax penalties is a strong disincentive. With abortion readily available as a means of enforcing the one child outcome, it was perhaps inevitable that the parents, thinking perhaps of the potential earning and social status of a male child, could quietly ensure that more girls were aborted than males. In some areas later the policy was relaxed to say a second child might be produced if the first child was female. The consequent pressure to have a male for the second child is thought to be responsible for the unofficial disappearance of a number of the second child females. There have been charges of enforced saline solution abortions for children conceived without permission (reckoned at 20 000 per year in one province), the use of portable sonar scanning devices in the villages and even killing babies after birth. While these presumed deaths are believed to occur it should also be acknowledged that such a deliberate practice is officially illegal. That the consequent ratios varied between 1.1 males to about 1.3 males in rural Anhui, Guangdong, and Qinghai provinces suggested that there is an intentional policy in practice, although whether this was largely the parent choice is much less clear. We might add as a post-script to this that the abortion debate in China is largely on whether or not the parents have a right to avoid abortion, rather than as in the West, where the argument is rather whether or not the parents can choose to have an abortion. For the majority of women, no choice in contraception is offered; 80 % of women in a recent large study said they had no choice and just accepted the method recommended by the family-planning worker. So if the second (or subsequent) child is female, the pregnancy often “disappears,” allowing the couple to have another child in an attempt to have a son.
What happens to all the missing girls is a matter of speculation. Sex-selective abortion after ultrasonography undoubtedly accounts for a large proportion of the decline in female births. There have been allegations that some of the girl babies have been sold and find their way outside China.
It is not entirely clear what China’s one child policy initiated in 1979 is going to do to China’s economy in the next few years. If for example we look at China compared with that other populous country India we note that in the next ten years the number expected to join the work force is about 25 million for China and 123 million for India.
As the first generation of law-enforced one child only children came of age for becoming parents themselves, one adult child was left with having to provide support for his or her two parents and four grandparents. This is called the “4-2-1 Problem”, and clearly leaves the older generations with increased chances of dependency on retirement funds or charity in order to receive support. The relatively smaller sector of the working population is expected to mean a heavier reliance on foreign workers and robots for China and may in fact mean that a good proportion of Chinese manufacturing will need to move off shore. Many of the Chinese families opting to have two or more children have emigrated, with Hong Kong, the US and the Philippines being popular destinations. The worrying shadow on the horizon for those left behind is the increasing aging population with proportionately fewer younger people available to look after them. With increasing demand to find workers to keep the economy going there are fewer available for full time care. Again the prospect of foreign help and elderly care robots is a likely consequence.
Unfortunately in countries where there are severe shortages of food and other resources for survival, the third world pattern for society is often to have as many children as possible. This not only increases the chances of probable survival of a number of children into adulthood, but in regions where there are few social services, it increases the chances of enough children growing up to support aged relatives.
In order for a similar one child policy to work outside China there would either have to be a strongly authoritarian control agency, or alternately a large majority of the population buying into the desirability of the practice. Since a number of Western countries including the US have made their opposition to the policy abundantly clear on a number of occasions it is unlikely that we will see nations with ties to the major Western powers wanting to follow suit in the near future. However the main issue is not so much whether it is a desirable practice particularly from a human rights point of view, but rather what is forced on groups of people in order to survive. In the real world there are few nations prepared to give significant aid of the sort which succeeds in making a real difference to the survivability of a region. Whether we like it or not, China was lifted many places in economic power by a raft of policies including the one child policy. For other countries with less prospect of survival in a world where there are regions with critical shortages of resources for basic survival, such policies may be reluctantly accepted if only to have the community survive. It may even be that in order to remove the chance that others too might be forced to adopt the policy, the price of preventing that which seems so repugnant to so many might be accepting the responsibility of offering sufficient aid that the policy is not needed. Opinions please (preferably with reasons)
Some questions that puzzle me:
1. Should a outside nation who does not provide alternative aid to avoid the adoption of a one child policy have the right to comment on the human rights implication of such a policy?
2. Given that there has been outrage about the policy expressed in the West, what might China have done as an alternative to deal with the situation they were facing in 1979?