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.


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