July 9th, 2012
10:32 AM ET

Could China's one-child policy change?

By Fareed Zakaria

I was pained recently to read the tragic story of China's Feng Jianmei. She was seven months pregnant. But she already had one child. So, local officials forced her to abort. The story could have ended there - another loss, another sad story. But Feng's relatives posted graphic images of her fetus on the internet. The pictures went viral, forcing government officials to apologize.

The story led to a government-affiliated think tank calling for change. Writing in the China Economic Times, it suggested Beijing should switch to a two-child policy.

Even a few years ago, it would have taken a very brave Chinese thinker to pose that question in public. Now, there is public discussion about China's one-child policy. Could it actually change?

When the one-child rule was first introduced in 1979, China's leaders were reacting to an unprecedented population boom - from 540 million to 960 million people in just under 30 years. And this was happening while China was one of the poorest countries in the world, with little prospect of economic growth. With certain exceptions, the policy was meant to restrict married, urban couples to having only one child. Officials sometimes resorted to extreme measures to implement the rules.

But do they make sense any more? Leaving aside the immoral practice of forced abortions, China is facing a demographic disaster.

China is going to get old before it gets rich. Right now, only 8.9% of Chinese are over the age of 65. Compare that to the American ratio of about 13%. But come 2050, China's percentage of elderly people will overtake that of America's, rising to 26%, which is more than Japan's right now.

Consider the median age over time in China. It's gone from 22 in 1980, rising steadily upwards to 35 now - roughly the figure for a rich country like America, not a developing society like China. But continue the projection until 2050 and the numbers get more troubling for Beijing. While the U.S. will have a median age of 40, China's will be closer to 50. So, half of all Chinese will be over the age of 50.

The implications are immense. China's workforce will shrink - it will no longer be the world's factory. All those older people will need to be supported - by their families or by the state. And China will likely need to import workers instead of exporting them - and China is not exactly an immigrant-friendly society. Societies with fewer young people become less dynamic, less risk-taking and less adventurous.

There's one more thing. China's one-child policy has been especially brutal on women. By one account, there are 123 male children for every 100 females under the age of 4. Imagine what happens when they grow up. Too many men, not enough potential spouses. And remember, countries with male youth bulges have historically seen civil wars and revolutions - from Algeria in the 1970s to the Arab Spring now.

Chinese officials claim the one child policy has prevented the births of 400 million children. They point to it as one of the reasons why the state has been able to lift millions out of poverty. That may be so, but the policy is now a burden, not a benefit.

The rules have been relaxed in some ways, but no formal reversal is possible until Beijing's next set of leaders assume power next year. Even then, it will take much courage. This is actually a fascinating real life example of the problems with centralized authoritarian regimes, even when they're as well run as China's. When they make good decisions - on economic policy, for example - they are rapidly implemented and well-executed. But the same is true when they make a bad decision, or a decision that no longer makes much sense. That seems to be the case with the one-child policy.

soundoff (309 Responses)
  1. Satish Vikram Singh

    Well done china... Over population is much more dangerous than terrorism etc. Etc. Actually OP is cradle of all problems for human beings.

    July 15, 2012 at 3:59 am | Reply
  2. citizenn

    Only one question:

    Can China feed twice as many people?

    July 15, 2012 at 4:32 am | Reply
  3. Texaslady2

    I understand your reasoning, but the human race is overpopulating this planet at a brutal pace. Most of this world's problems can be traced directly or indirectly to overpopulation: too many people. Most of the world's poorest countries are grossly overpopulated. We need to stabilize the earth's population, and eventually lower it. We must allow our older people to remain active and involved for as long as they possibly can, so they don't have to have 20 or 30 years of care from younger people. China should encourage its people to stay with 1 child.

    July 15, 2012 at 7:33 am | Reply
  4. Holycow

    Every problem on this planet can be directly connected to the fact there are more than 7 billion people on it. We are destroying this world at an ever increasing rate. It is not will America and the rest of the world will have a 1 child role it is when. What is America going to be like when there are 700 million of us? Run away unemployment, water shortages, food shortages, and housing shortages. Nothing good can happen. Wake up America.

    July 15, 2012 at 9:26 am | Reply
  5. Doug Pearson

    Yes, the world has way too many people. Yes, people having better health and longer lives means longer working lives and longer retirements. Yes, fewer children per woman means the median age goes up. Yes, I would prefer to see populations decline naturally (Italy, for example) rather than by law and force (China, for example).

    Yes, the number of people on this planet must stop growing rapidly, then stop growing slowly, then stop growing, then start declining slowly until it reaches a reasonable number. How long will it take? Optimistically, I think it will take about 20-40 generations, or about 500-1000 years.

    China decided in 1979 to speed up this process. If they continue with their 1 child per woman policy for two more generations, then switch to a stabilization policy (2.1 children per woman) they will settle out at a population of well under a billion (probably half or less compared to today's population). Will that be a reasonable population for China?

    In the meantime, we have hard centuries ahead.

    July 15, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Reply
    • billybob

      If China were to lift the 1 child ban, families would be pumping out babies as soon as the vajeen recovers. It will be an epic boom that will cripple China, possibly destroy it.

      July 15, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Reply
    • nzchicago

      It's really a shame because by the time the population settles, the damage done to the earth will be immense. And the end result will be the same – we will have to adapt to a way of life that entails an economy that isn't based on perpetual growth, and will have a somewhat older population base. Since the end result will be the same, it's too bad we don't have the sense to avoid the pain of the coming centuries and deal with the problem now. I think it would take a world-wide education campaign to encourage people to have no more than 2 children per couple. Iran was very successful in reducing their birth rate with a campaign like that, along with universal access to contraception. Even if we could convince people to have one fewer child per family, the time it would take to reach a stable population could be reduced by hundreds of years.

      July 15, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Reply
  6. Cam

    As a species we have evoled so well, we are killing our environment which will end of taking us all out. I don't think the one child rule is bad. It's probably just to late. We have too many people and we are using up all our natural resources at a greater pace. It's not going to effect me but it will effect our children's, children. It's a sad state we leave our children.

    July 15, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Reply
  7. Jack

    They need more wage slave laborers.

    July 15, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  8. Mordac

    OMG, China's running out of slaves! How will I get my new iPhone 5 and who will make the uniforms for the USA olympic team?

    July 15, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  9. billybob

    Everywhere in the world should have a 1 child policy. There is absolutely no reason for an octomom or someone to be having more than 5 kids. The Earth would thank us if we started to have less children. We need an apocolypse.

    July 15, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  10. nd

    who's care about china, why dont's we talk about the problem in US? Now millions south america imigrants who have come here and have a child after another, and receive support for the children until they reach 18 years old. What a burden for society!

    July 15, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Reply
  11. johnny

    Agree with you all – Americans shouldnt expell so much hot air about China.

    You see, during its economic expansion years China's exports contributed 45 + % to China's economy. That is dropping as China consumers continue to prosper and their spending has become a major GDP contributor.

    China's exports to the world now only account for 28% of China's GDP – and still dropping. Exports to USA contribute even lesser – like 5% at most.

    Asia , the emerging countries, and Africa will become the major customers for Chinese products in the next decade.

    And I think one of the secondary reasons why China is revolving their economics, is in case Romney becomes the unthinkable president. If you can recall – Romney in one of his speeches, echoed sly Donald Trump in labelling China as dishonest – exact word he used was "cheaters".

    July 16, 2012 at 12:37 am | Reply
  12. Chedar

    It's all the fault of Mao Zedong. Nao's believed that in order to win a war, China must rapidly populate Songhai can have enough soldiers to fight the war. Not so in modern warfare. So there goes the over population of China. In order to curtail the rapid growth in population. China implemented a one child policy in the early '90s and should stay on course for another 5-8 yrs in in order to sustain the economy vs population.

    July 16, 2012 at 5:05 am | Reply
  13. LG

    china already has 1.3 billion population. the size of the population already overburden china's natural resources, agriculture and economy. there is simply not enough job to supply this population. that is why china has to take in polluting industries, allow employers to manipulate their labors in order for the job to stay in china. the other option would be no jobs. when a company suffers loss, employer can put its employee out of work to keep the company afloat. today china simply has too many people, there is no other alternatives for china except mandating the one child policy. forced abortion is a bad, invasive, but most effective way to deter people from violating that policy. the other option is to let the baby out. that will render one child policy useless. keeping the extra child from coming to this world is trying to save the other millions of children under one child policy and helping them having a better life. in fact the parents in china today pour all their resources in that only child. most children in china is the king in family. one child was enjoying the love of 6 by their parents (2) and grand parents (4). the 7 months pregnant woman who went through forced abortion knew the policy, and chose to risk it. she should also be blamed. i am wondering if she knew her 2nd baby is still a girl (not a boy), would she still choose to have the baby? today's china simply does not welcome extra new baby. people want to have more children in china simply lives in the worst time in china's demographic history. sometimes it takes a bad policy to reach a good result. future chinese generations will see the benefits of today's one child policy. the good or bad of this policy should only be judged by chinese historians a few hundred years later, not by international media or some foreign governments. think about it, it doesn't hurt for the CCP to repeal this policy, or even earn them some good name. But communist party today is willing to take the bad name to implement this policy because they know it will be good for china in the long run. that is policy as a chinese myself truly supported.

    July 16, 2012 at 10:38 am | Reply
  14. more

    It's actually a cool and useful piece of information. I'm happy that you shared this helpful info with us. Please keep us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

    September 10, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  15. click here

    You could certainly see your enthusiasm in the work you write. The world hopes for even more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to mention how they believe. At all times follow your heart.

    September 20, 2012 at 5:07 am | Reply
  16. Jane

    The earth as an endless supply of resources. People are only being selfish by squandering and destroying it.
    And what about reincarnation? There are a lot of things out there that srongly suggest the exsistence of it. Look at at the things being dicovered by doctors who have hynotised people and the articles that have been written about it. I agree with you. Spread out. What did God say to Abraham? Populate and I will increase and multyply iyour offspring in numbers. I know it sound funny.But, I was paraphrasing not directly quoting.

    November 20, 2012 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  17. Yul Anderson

    Africa is China's Future, China is sending 30 – 100 million Chinese men to Africa to work. The end result is that Chinese men find an easier pathway to marriage, housing and space. 30 – 100 million Chinese men are expected to work in Africa. The African future has been changed, there will be an increase in African-Chinese children which will change Africa's future..

    May 13, 2016 at 2:32 pm | Reply
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