China needs smarter population policies

Last Thursday, Chinese authorities announced changes to their infamous one-child policy, which has been in place for the past 35 years. Now, Chinese couples will be allowed to have two children without fees and penalties. The change is long overdue, as the policy was one of the biggest failures of any demographic policy in the world and has caused tremendous human suffering.

The policy was first created to boost economic growth and was also influenced by mid-20th century population bomb rhetoric that predicted that exponential population growth would cause resource shortages and economic strain. However, the one-child policy had a negligible benefit, if any, to China’s economy, according to a New Yorker interview with policy expert Mei Fong this week. Economists largely attribute China’s growth to investment strategies and entrepreneurship, not demographics.

On the contrary, egregious human rights violations have been carried out under its reign. Forced sterilizations, forced abortions – both early and late term – infanticide and child confiscation occurred regularly. According to a Washington Post article on Oct. 30, official statistics reported that 6.7 million women in China were forced to have abortions under the one-child policy.

This new policy change comes as officials are starting to see how a demographic imbalance is affecting the Communist Party’s bottom line. China failed to meet “replacement rate reproduction,” meaning that each couple has two children who can “replace” them in the population when they pass away. This, along with China’s negative net migration rate, has resulted in a generation of young people who are vastly outnumbered by older generations.

The government can’t bring in enough tax revenue from the smaller working population to fund social and medical programs to support the larger aging population.

For single children, the burden of taking care of their parents falls solely upon their shoulders. Should an only child pass away prematurely or move away from home, the parents are left with no caretakers in their old age. There is even a term given to Chinese parents whose only child has died: “shidu.” This position comes with social stigma. There are an estimated one million “shidu” parents, and this number grows every year, according to the aforementioned New Yorker interview with Mei Fong.

The stress and uncertainty experienced by older generations is correlated with an unusually high rate of suicide in elderly Chinese people. According to a 2009 study in the journal Psychogeriatrics, “the over-65 age group has the highest rate of completed suicide, reaching 44.3-200 per 100,000, which is four to five times higher than the Chinese general population.”

Raising the official limit to two is a very small step, but a step nonetheless. China should repeal their direct family planning policies altogether and cleanse the government of its atrocious family planning enforcement branch.

Population dynamics are important to states, so I won’t argue against that. The predictable replacement rate reproduction of Scandinavian states is part of the reason those governments can provide such reliable social programs. But smarter policies should be enacted.

Educating women has been widely shown to dramatically lower birth rates. According to a seminal 1997 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women who have attained a college education will have an average of only 1.6-2 children. More widespread education efforts for Chinese women, especially those living in rural areas, would have just as dramatic an effect on the birth rates, without any of the horrific side effects. Easier access to family planning resources could also help.

Chinese demographic policy needs to be smarter at its core, not simply relaxed in scope.

Annie Cappetta is a sophomore majoring in ecosystem science and policy and political science.