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The Lost Girls

China’s One-Child policy is an epic disaster. Why does it have so many cheerleaders?

Sep 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 02 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Under One-Child, couples wanting a baby were required to obtain permission from local officials first. (In 2002, the government relaxed this provision; you can now have one child without government clearance.) After having a child, urban residents and government employees were forbidden from having another, with some exceptions. In rural areas, for instance, couples were often allowed to have a second baby five years after the first. There are a total of 22 exceptions which allow Chinese to have a second child, but they tend to be narrow: 63 percent of couples are bound to a single child. Any more than two—even for the lucky exceptions—and the government institutes penalties. Sanctions range from heavy fines to confiscation of belongings to dismissal from work. There are reports of violators having the roofs of their houses removed, or their doors and windows walled shut. 

And then there were the forced abortions and sterilizations. On this score, the Chinese government had help from the West. In 1979, as China prepared to roll out One-Child, the government signed an agreement with the United Nations Population Fund, which pledged $50 million to help control births—a euphemism that in practice meant groups of government workers rounding up pregnant women and forcing them to have abortions. The U.N.’s presence opened the door for other Western organizations, including the Ford Foundation and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which poured resources into China in an effort to kill babies. These groups were not unaware of what was happening. The IPPF’s Benjamin Viel wrote admiringly, “Persuasion and motivation [are] very effective in a society in which social sanctions can be applied against those who fail to cooperate in the construction of the socialist state.”

Others were less enamored by what they saw. In January 1980, an official from the IPPF sent a memo of caution to the group’s director. “[V]ery strong measures [are] being taken to reduce population growth—including abortion up to 8 months,” the memo said, before continuing:

I think that in the not-too-distant future this will blow up into a major Press story, as it contains all the ingredients for sensationalism—Communism, forced family planning, murder of viable fetuses, parallels with India, etc. When it does blow up, it is going to be very difficult to defend.

Planned Parenthood’s leadership ignored the warning. But although the story did ultimately blow up, it turned out that it wasn’t so hard to defend after all. Just ask Tom Friedman. Just ask Vice President Biden.

The overall result of this concerted effort is a Chinese fertility rate that now sits somewhere around 1.54, depending on who’s doing the tabulating. Demographer Nicholas Eberstadt notes, “In some major population centers—Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin among them—it appears that the average number of births per woman is amazingly low: below one baby per lifetime.”

All of which brings us to the practical problems of One-Child. For starters, even when you consider the contemporaneous fears of overpopulation, One-Child was not particularly helpful. The Chinese government claims that One-Child has prevented 400 million births over the last 30 years. And it’s possible they’re right. But that number assumes that the Chinese fertility rate would have remained at its 1970 level without the policy. Which seems unlikely.

Chinese fertility was already falling when One-Child was instituted, and the policy certainly steepened the curve. Other projections suggest that it has prevented 100 million births, which isn’t nothing. But either way, One-Child has been a gigantic failure by demographic standards. Whether One-Child was the driving force, or simply responsible for the fertility decline at the margin, the country is now on the brink of radical population shrinkage. By 2050, China will be losing, on net, 20 million people every five years.

And whatever effect One-Child had on China’s fertility rate, it also produced two unexpected changes in the country’s demographic profile.

First, One-Child created an enormous sex imbalance in the population. In nature, 105 boys are born for every 100 girls. But in China (and other Asian countries) there is a strong cultural preference for sons. Once Chinese were limited to one or, at most, two children, it became enormously important to parents that their one child be a male heir. The combination of ultrasound technology, which allowed sex-determination in utero, with industrial-scale abortion created an atmosphere in which it was thoroughly routine for mothers to abort female babies. This practice has become so widespread in China that there are a mind-boggling 123 boys born for every 100 girls.

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