China’s reversal of its one-child policy is about controlling politics—not population

Sparking change.
Sparking change.
Image: Reuters/Carlos Barria
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Any step back from Beijing’s counterproductive approach to population control is certainly a move in the right direction. Nonetheless, the relaxation of the one-child policy, as announced last week, highlights much of what is wrong with China’s political process.

The country’s demography looks like it is falling off a cliff. In 2009, Beijing’s National Population and Family Planning Commission predicted that the size of the workforce would peak in 2016. In reality, the top was reached in 2010, according to leading Chinese demographers.  Moreover, there is a similar speedup of demographic trends in the country as a whole. Official projections suggest China’s total population will reach its high point sometime around 2033, but one senior official in May 2012 publicly talked about that happening this decade.

Fast-moving demographic trends are not the only signs of population-planning failure. There is also the imbalance of the sexes. Due in large part to the one-child policy, China boasts, according to official 2012 statistics, what is the world’s most skewed sex ratio at birth, 117.7 males for every 100 females. As a result of abnormal birth patterns, there may be as many as 51.5 million excess males.  The sex imbalance has led to increased prostitution, HIV infection, and trafficking in women.

Demographic trends, even accelerated ones, do not sneak up on a government like, say, an epidemic or a hurricane. They are years in the making and can be spotted well in advance. Beijing’s population officials should have seen these particular trends years ago and acted to counteract them as they obviously would have profound—and ill—effects.

Instead, they adopted a fix last week that will barely move the needle. Even demographers who think the amendment to the policy could result in as many as an extra 2 million births a year, such as Wang Feng of the University of California at Irvine, are not forecasting a full-scale boom, in part because relentless indoctrination since the end of the 1970s has changed the big-family mentality of the Chinese. Beijing’s own family-planning officials, speaking after Friday’s announcement, have said we should not expect a significant increase in births.

So Chinese officials have engineered what looks like a demographic collapse, and now they have just adopted an obviously inadequate solution. Their puzzling inaction shows that Beijing’s decision-making process is not serving the country well. China’s leaders may or may not be identifying problems, but they are clearly not adopting solutions and implementing them in time.

Why not? The Communist Party has moved away from one-man rule, last seen in the Mao Zedong era. Virtually every observer says this is progress, because no single individual can make big mistakes and plunge the country into chaos, as Mao repeatedly did with, for instance, his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.

Yet without strongman governance, bold change is not in the cards. Deng Xiaoping was able to reverse the country’s course and create a four-decade “economic miracle.” Today, there is no one in the Chinese political system with the power to do anything like that. There is a technocratic, collective decision-making elite that believes change should be implemented in small steps and only after long periods of experimentation. This means solutions are carefully considered—and that change is extremely slow in coming.

Moreover, in the past decade entrenched interests have captured the political process. Reform, therefore, has few supporting constituencies in Beijing. Just at a time when China needs change the most—demography is not the only critical challenge the leadership faces—the political system is least able to deliver it.

Many people praise China’s technocrats for their management of the country, yet accelerated demographic decline will surely rank among their worst failures. Beijing officials should have scrapped the one-child policy at least a decade ago, but their caution stopped them from adopting the commonsense solution.

China will not suffer another Cultural Revolution, but for the same reason it will not be able to create a demographic miracle either.