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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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This grisly reality is behind the Associated Press’s happy talk about China being a paradise for girls. The relative scarcity of girls has meant that women are prized and treated exceptionally well by parents, who can devote all their resources to them, and suitors who want to marry them. Things really are great for Chinese girls—if they survive until birth.

China’s sex imbalance means that the country has a large cohort of men for whom marriage will be a statistical impossibility. By the late 2020s nearly one in five Chinese men will be “surplus males.” This has all sorts of cultural consequences—increased violence and political instability historically attend gender imbalances. But from a demographic standpoint, it means that China’s already low fertility rate is functionally lower than it looks—because of the sex disparity among children who are born, many fewer than half will be females who have the opportunity to reproduce.

The other unintended consequence is that One-Child has radically altered China’s age structure, giving it many more old people than young. In 2005, the country’s median age was 32-years-old. By 2050, it will be 45-years-old, and a full quarter of the populace will be over 65. That means 330 million senior citizens, most of whom will have little or no family to care for them.

China has no pension system to speak of and will have only 2 workers per retiree—which isn’t much of a tax base from which to build one. The age ratio may cause a labor shortage, too: In the next 10 years, the number of Chinese aged 20 to 24 will drop by 45 percent. All age-cohorts will shrink, except among the elderly. It is a looming demographic catastrophe—Eberstadt calls it a “slow-motion humanitarian tragedy.” All of these problems are as obvious as they are unavoidable; yet they are rarely acknowledged in the West.

They are not lost on the Chinese. The government has tried to correct the sex imbalance by making sex-determination illegal and allowing rural parents who have a girl first to immediately try for a son. Neither reform has had much effect. The government is now worrying about how to change its demographic trajectory, since it needs new young workers to support the coming wave of retirees and instead is facing imminent population decline.

A group of Chinese demographers, both in the government and at universities, has been cautiously arguing for the last several years that they must reform the One-Child policy in order to escape the demographic trap in which the country is caught.

But they’re not optimistic. One-Child may have altered the foundations of Chinese society to the point of being irreversible. In modern countries with access to contraception and abortion, the theoretical upper limit on a society’s fertility rate is its “ideal fertility”—that is, the number of children women say they would like to have in a perfect world. This ideal number is always higher than achieved fertility, because parents bump into various real-world constraints. For example, although most Western countries have an ideal fertility number above 2, the only Western country with a fertility rate above 2.0 is America.

In 2006, Chinese demographers began studying the Jiangsu province, where couples are allowed to have a second child so long as one of the parents was an only child. They surveyed women who were eligible for a second child, trying to get a handle on what China’s ideal fertility number might be. Among women who could have two children if they wanted, 1.46 was the ideal number.

For the Chinese, this is the scariest number of all because it suggests that even if One-Child were lifted tomorrow, it might not matter. If One-Child has eroded not just real fertility, but even the desire of the Chinese to have children, then there is no way out. Governments have tried coaxing and coercing people into having more children than they want to for centuries and it never—literally never—works.

China’s One-Child policy has been a demographic disaster for China. And the worst is yet to come.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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