China recently ended its policy of limiting most families to just one child. The decision will have important implications far beyond China, especially in the United States.
Motivated by fears that an aging population would cripple economic growth, the Communist Party of the People's Republic of China recently rescinded a decades-old rule that limited most couples to one child. Under the new rules, all families will now be allowed to have two children. However, there are and always have been exceptions to the one-child rules.
A Long History of Population Control
Even in 1900, China was home to 400,000,000 people, one quarter of all the people on the planet at the time. For centuries, both deaths of infants and infanticide were so common that births were not counted until the child was a year old, and even today, some elderly Chinese count their ages from their first year, not their births. World War II and the Communist revolution in 1951, however, changed attitudes toward family size.
In the 1950's and 1960's and even beyond, China's military strategy was based on having an overwhelming number of troops. To build the people's army, there had to be more people. Chairman Mao encouraged large families, and many Chinese had three, four, five, and six children. The population grew from 540,000,000 in 1949 to 960,000,000 in 1970. Mao's successor Deng Xiao-Ping, however, decreed that a new policy was necessary to ensure that “the fruits of economic growth are not devoured by population growth.”
Most Chinese families were strictly limited to one child after 1971. The law was enforced by heavy fines and forced abortions. Even after an abortion, contraception was not readily available, and some families had to wait several years before they were allowed to try again.
There were, however, up to 22 exceptions to the one-child rule. Couples could apply for permission to have a second child if their first child died, or was born with significant disabilities. Disabled servicemen were allowed to have a second child. Many provinces allowed couples to try for a second child if their first-born was a girl. Ethnic minorities in lightly populated Tibet and western China were exempted from the rule. Wealthy families could have additional children overseas (or in Hong Kong or Macau) and bring them back, although these children could not become Chinese citizens.
Even with the one-child rule, China's population soared to its current 1.3 billion, with an excess of male citizens. Since Chinese parents depend on sons to support them in old age, many couples opted to abort female fetuses. The practice of sex selection by abortion was outlawed, but prosecution was difficult because it was hard to prove what parents knew about the gender of their babies before birth.
Many baby girls were simply abandoned, often in a basket in a public street with a little money or some milk powder. This practice was also outlawed, but it fueled the building of orphanages and an adoption industry that for many years catered to families in the United States desperately seeking children. With the new two-child rule, the already-dying adoption industry may be coming to an end.
Why Has China Ended the One-Child Rule?
When China adopted its draconian family planning policies, coming immediately after the Party encouraged large families, there was widespread fear that the world was running out of resources. Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich's book The Population Bomb influenced policy making all over the planet, even China, and there were numerous predictions that the world would run out of oil by 1975 and run out of food by 1985. Smaller populations seemed to make sense.
The predicted catastrophe failed to materialize. Even if a majority of Chinese women now choose to have two babies (and experts don't believe this is likely), China's population will peak at 1.42 billion in the year 2043. The population of China is expected to fall to under 900,000,000 by the end of this century. Declining population puts even more strain on elder care, and leaves a huge surplus of housing that will decimate investments. The twentieth century's solution is becoming the twenty-first century's problem. All of the effects of the policy, however, are not economic.