The issue: Government’s action may be too late to reverse the trend
Totalitarian governments pride themselves on thinking Big Thoughts. Unfortunately, totalitarian governments are structurally incapable of thinking through the inescapable consequences of their Big Thoughts.
ONE PARTICULARLY apt example of this hubris was China’s Great Leap Forward, when Chairman Mao decreed mass collectivization of agriculture and grandiose industrialization schemes like backyard blast furnaces.
Unfortunately, the economy leaped backward for the four years of the experiment and, at a minimum, 18 million Chinese died by starvation or execution as the Communist Party tried ever more draconian measures to make an unworkable policy work.
Now China’s rulers are gently unwinding one of those Big Thoughts — the hated one-child-per-family policy intended to solve what was seen as runaway population growth.
The policy worked: The birth rate fell from 4.77 children per woman in the early 1970s to 1.64 in 2011, according to U.S. data. The policy was enforced through huge fines, official harassment and in extreme cases by forced abortions and unofficially by infanticide of girl babies who were thought less desirable.
The long-term consequences are now becoming glaringly evident: China expects its working-age population, ages 15 to 64, to shrink by 67 million workers over the next 20 years. Fewer workers mean employers will be forced to pay higher wages, depriving the Chinese economy of one of is great cost advantages.
The shortage of female babies — published figures put the male-to-female birth ratio at 1.13 to 1.17, the most unbalanced on Earth — means there will be a shortage of marriageable young women when the post-one-child generation comes of age in 20 years or so. And there will be the problem, by no means exclusive to China, of a stagnant or shrinking working-age population supporting a growing population of the elderly.
THE NEW POLICY allows couples to have a second child if one of the parents was an only child. The change may add only 1 million to 2 million above normal population growth.
Initial reaction to easing the policy was favorable but, as with so many Big Thoughts, it ultimately might not work — maybe the Chinese no longer want larger families thanks to affluence and urbanization.
A study by the Shanghai city government cited by The Wall Street Journal said that couples born after 1980, the year the policy went into effect, say that on average couples are willing to have only 1.2 children. And the average number of children born per couple in the city is 0.7, well below the replacement rate.
In solving one problem, China’s rulers have succeeded in creating more new ones.