According to the United Nations, the world’s population hit 7 billion on the last day of October. We would have reached this mark at least a half decade earlier, Beijing tells us, had it not been for its one-child policy, which prevented the births of 400 million people.
Apparently Chinese officials think there are too many humans on Spaceship Earth and have taken this opportunity to congratulate themselves for limiting their numbers. “The Chinese government seriously fulfills the World Population Plan of Action and the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations, making positive contributions to the world’s population development,” said Li Bin, director of the State Population and Family Planning Commission, on Sunday.
Whether or not there should be fewer of us on this precious planet, China is paying a terrible price for its ambitious population policies. For one thing, its brutally enforced one-child regime—resulting in forced abortions and sterilizations and even murders of minutes-old infants—is probably the most hated of all its programs.
Moreover, in a society that values males, the one-child rules have created bizarre demographic patterns. For instance, in 2010 there were 118 males born for every 100 females, according to official statistics, and it’s possible the sex ratio was even more imbalanced than that. In any event, the dearth of females has led to prostitution, trafficking in women, and HIV. Some, who subscribe to the bare-branches theory, think the abnormal sex ratio contributes to political instability, inhibits democratization, and pushes Chinese leaders to engage in aggressive foreign policies.
The important number to focus on is the total fertility rate, which indicates the number of births per female. Beijing claims its TFR has stabilized at 1.8—not too far below the replacement rate of 2.1—but nobody outside the central government believes that figure. The United Nations, for instance, put the rate at an abnormally low 1.4 in 2006, and it’s sure to have fallen since then.
In any event, China is headed for swift demographic decline. Its workforce will begin shrinking in the next decade, sometime between 2013 and 2016, with the better estimates predicting the drop will happen sooner rather than later. The country’s population will level off and then start to fall sometime around 2025—and perhaps as early as nine years from now.
Think we are living in China’s century? Some Chinese demographers believe that India, in about two decades, will have twice the number of workers as China. India’s population will peak 35 years after China’s does, at which time there will be about 500 million more Indians than Chinese—maybe even 600 million.
China will suffer from the old-before-rich syndrome, with a rapidly aging population unable to support older generations. With the so-called inverted-pyramid or 4-2-1 problem, one worker will have to support two parents and four grandparents.
So why doesn’t Beijing ditch the one-child policy? Chinese leaders have to know it is no longer needed. After all, studies show that the government’s population-planning indoctrination has been so effective that most young couples don’t have a second child even when they are permitted to do so. Moreover, China’s demographic decline is unsustainable and bound to lead to severe social and economic problems soon.
There are three explanations for Beijing’s reluctance to abolish this abhorrent, counterproductive, and out-of-date policy. First, every bureaucracy protects its prerogatives, and the population agency is already politically strong. Second, the one-child regime gives the Communist Party a means to control people, especially in the countryside, where the ruling organization’s apparatus has been weakened over the course of decades. Third, the country’s political system has become less effective in the last few years, and now it is paralyzed by the upcoming leadership transition.
Whatever the reason, Beijing is enforcing an obviously wrongheaded set of rules. That, more than anything, points to the failure of governance in China today.