The Legacy of China’s One-Child Policy

In “The Legacy of China’s One-Child Policy,” (Time, Dec. 13, 2016), Hannah Beach reports on the sad reality of China’s misguided 1979 policy of limiting most families to one child.

Some costs of China’s family planning, which limited most urban families to a single child, are well known. Because of the abrupt lowering of the birth rate, China will grow old before it grows rich. The nation is already facing a labor shortage.

Fears of worldwide overpopulation and natural resource depletion influenced 1970s textbooks and classroom instruction around the world. Videos from ZPG (Zero Population Growth) shown to high school classes highlighted year-by-year population growth that accelerates rapidly with the Industrial Revolution in 1800s (similar YouTube world population video here). (Actually, the birth rate stayed much the same, but the death rate fell dramatically. Costs of food and clothes fell as farms and factories were able to produce far more at lower costs. Plus transportation costs fell some 80%, so food, raw materials, and people could travel less expensively around the world).

Here is abstract from ZPG report from 1985 critical of the Reagan Administration for ignoring the benefits of China’s one-child policy:

The Reagan administration refuses to recognize the achievements of China’s population program and the practical and humanitarian considerations which lead to China’s adoption of vigorous family planning policies. … The national census of 1982 revealed that China’s population doubled between 1949-1982 and in 1982 exceeded 1 billion. Severe famine and economic chaos were forecasted for the near future if population growth was not severely and immediately curbed. 

But forecast by whom? Economist Julian Simon in his book The Ultimate Resource, emphasized that though every new child was at first a burden (as well as a joy) to parents, new mouths to feed soon became new hands able to produce and new minds to create and innovate. In open societies (unlike China under communism) people can produce far, far more in their lifetime than they consume.

Environmentalists and population-control advocates also feared the world was running out of resources, and demand for the oil, coal, natural gas, copper, zinc, aluminum, and other natural resources would soon exceed supplies that could be found. For more on 1970s overpopulation and natural resource fears see the 1977 Global 2000 Report to the President, and 1972 Limits to Growth study from The Club of Rome. (Students are encouraged to research both scholars who believed in natural resource depletion and other scholars (often economists) who believed markets and innovation would continue to innovate and discover new natural resources.)

Along with government population control, international ownership and planning of scarce world resources was advocated. For example, the 1975-1976 national high school debate topic:

Resolved: That the development and allocation of scarce world resources should be controlled by an international organization.

Hannah Beach in Time reports another legacy of China’s population policy:

But for the 13 million or so unregistered Chinese, most of whom were born in contravention of family-planning regulations, the one-child policy’s devastating effects still endure. …

Since their births were not officially recorded, many of these individuals live in the shadows of Chinese society. They could not go to school or get a passport. All too often, their parents were fined prohibitive amounts or forced out of their jobs. Although some have managed to fight the system, others spend their days mired in endless paperwork. Their goal: to get their very existence recognized by the Chinese state.

An alternate path for China’s unregistered is to exit the country that does not recognize their rights as Chinese citizens or human beings.

In “Start-up cities” for refugees: a long-term solution to the migration crisis?,” Pieter Cleppe argues new charter cities could help millions of refugees around the world. New charter cities could help millions wishing to escape China. And there is no better example than the charter city that gave economic freedom to millions of impoverished Chinese refugees:

What was Hong Kong other than a city governed by Western officials and populated largely by refugees from Maoist China? If it was possible for the British to provide a safe home for millions of people on the run in much more challenging times, why wouldn’t it be possible for the whole of the developed world – not just Western countries – to give any refugee the most precious thing the developed world can offer them: the protection of the rule of law, which has propelled the US, Canada, Europe, Japan, and parts of East and Southeast Asia to the levels of wealth they enjoy today.

Desperate for economic reforms so China could catch up to the West (and with Hong Kong, Taiwan, SK, and Japan), Chinese government officials since the 1960s have implemented disastrously destructive economic policies.

More on charter cities for refugees: “A Place for the Stateless: Can a Startup City Solve the Refugee Crisis?” And a longer history of charter cities “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty” (The Atlantic, July/August, 2010). Economist Paul Romer suggests “A Charter City in Cuba?” to address a US problem, and poverty for Cubans:

An existing treaty between the United States and Cuba currently gives the United States administrative control over a piece of sovereign Cuban territory straddling Guantanamo Bay that is twice the size of Manhattan.

Imagine that the United States and Cuba agree to disengage by closing the military base and transferring local administrative control to Canada. Canada works with Cuba to draft a charter for this special zone and promises to enforce its terms. Under this charter, a new city blossoms. It does for Cuba what Hong Kong, administered by the British, did for China; it connects Cuba to the global economy.

Some students debating the Mexico/Venezuela/Cuba debate topic from a few years ago researched Romer’s proposal for a new Hong Kong in Cuba.

See also “Could Refugee Camps Be Startup Cities?

Back to China’s One-Child Policy
Nicholas Eberstadt in the Wall Street Journal (October 29, 2015), calls China’s population control policy: “The one-child mandate is the single greatest social-policy error in human history.”

The Chinese government’s draconian one-child policy followed soon after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, and was a response to incredible poverty across China following decades of top-down economic planning.

The one-child policy created an utterly new social system for China, notes Eberstadt:

And China’s cities are now producing a new family type utterly unfamiliar to Chinese history: only children begotten by only children. They have no siblings, cousins, uncles or aunts, only ancestors (and perhaps, one day, descendants). 

China’s population problems aren’t yet fixed. It’s current two-child mandate still has government officials trying to regulate families, limiting those without wealth or political connections to just two children.

On the positive side, there is this recent article: “Researchers may have ‘found’ many of China’s 30 million missing girls,” (Washington Post, November 30, 2016):

Academics often talk about between 30 and 60 million “missing girls” in China, apparently killed in the womb or just after birth, thanks to a combination of preference for sons and the country’s decades under a repressive one-child policy.

Now researchers in the United States and China think they might have found many — or even most — of them, and argue they might not have been killed after all. …

“If we go over a course of 25 years, it’s possible there are about 25 million women in the statistics that weren’t there at birth,” Kennedy said.

So, it is very good news that millions of Chinese girls long thought lost by academics may be found in rural areas and among the 200 million floating population (those who migrated illegally to work in Chinese factories).

However, many of these young people long fenced out of official Chinese society might well wish to depart regulated China and migrate toward opportunities in freer and more prosperous cities around the world.

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