• Fri
  • Apr 18, 2014
  • Updated: 8:40am

'One child' cruel and unnecessary

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am

China's one-child policy has long been a cruel and unusual punishment of a nation, and of some families in particular. But it has achieved nothing that could not have been done without coercion and its likely abandonment in the not-too-distant future will do little or nothing to raise the nation's languishing fertility rate.

Lurid stories of forced abortions which have appalled the public and academic papers about the dangers of a too-rapidly ageing population are gradually undermining the efforts of Communist Party apparatchiks to sustain a policy which has given them outrageous power over individual choice. This gradual weakening of the policy provides a good opportunity to remember the absurdity of the claims that it was necessary to bring down population growth.

For proof, one has only to look at mainland China's neighbours, all of which saw steep falls in fertility with no compulsion and in some cases no overt government campaigns. Take Hong Kong and Singapore, which both saw steep falls in fertility even under colonial regimes loathe to take on issues like family values.

Singapore's fertility rate began its rapid decline in the late 1950s and speeded up under incentives introduced by the People's Action Party government after independence. From a fertility rate of more than six births per woman in the 1950s, it fell to 1.8 by 1980.

Colonial Hong Kong had no policy, but its rate fell from 5.3 in the early 1960s to 2.3 by the mid-1970s, to about two by 1980 and now languishes around one.

Self-contained cities may seem the exception, but compare the mainland with two other East Asian societies which have undergone similar industrialisation processes: Thailand and South Korea. They each had rates of six around 1960, falling to 4.2 a decade later. Korea reached the two mark around 1985 and Thailand a decade later. Now Thailand is similar to the mainland at 1.6 and Korea similar to Taiwan and Japan at 1.3.

Thailand's actual fertility performance has been very close to the mainland's for 40 years. They were roughly similar in the early 1960s and through the 1970s, were the same from 1975-80 at 2.9 and have almost matched each other every five years since then.

And how did Thailand achieve this? Simply by making contraception easily available in all locations and being unabashed about sex. Older readers will recall the amusing condom promotion carried out by Dr Mechai Viravaidya in the 1970s which was subsequently also applied to Aids-prevention campaigns.

The contrast between an open society like Thailand and its enemy, the one led by unelected ideologues and authoritarians, could not be sharper. The human cost to achieve nothing that could not have been done voluntarily has been huge. It is being passed onto a new generation through one of its by-products, the excess of male births - if only one child is allowed, cultural preferences for males win out.

Some countries have seen even more rapid reductions in fertility rates as a result of changes in official attitudes towards the merit of smaller families, but by supplying contraceptives rather than using Beijing-style compulsion. Iran under the mullahs went from an average of six in 1980 to two by 2005; Vietnam from four in 1990 to 1.9 a decade later.

So will abandonment of the one-child diktat make any difference? The policy has, fortunately, never been fully implemented everywhere, with minorities exempted in rural areas and enforcement zeal varying widely. But two factors now weigh against any significant rise in the fertility rate.

Firstly, the desire for more children is strongest in rural areas, but the percentage of those of child-bearing age is low thanks to urban migration. As for the major cities, these are likely to show the same pattern as similar ones in east Asia, or worse.

Indeed, Shanghai significantly eased one-child restrictions several years ago by making many more couples eligible for a second one. But that made scant difference to a fertility rate which has most recently been reported at just 0.7, probably the lowest in the world.

The mainland, like most of East Asia and much of Europe, has to rethink many policies if ultimately self-destructive fertility levels are to be reversed. In most of these countries, the opportunity costs of having children are very high. So too are social expectations for consumption rather than investment in a new generation.

But the mainland's problems could be worse due to its gender imbalance, lack of social safety nets and because of an urbanisation process that still has some way to run.

Besides, unlike almost every other modernisation step it has taken, it has almost nothing to learn from its neighbours. Unlike Hong Kong or Singapore, or even Taiwan and Korea, it is far too big for immigration, if ever sought, to have any impact.

So, apart from making much more strenuous efforts to raise the status of women, it will have to look at how the northern Europeans - or at least some of them - have dealt with the situation. They use public funds to support children to lower the opportunity costs of having them. They provide job protection for new mothers and treat children for what they are - the working generation's investment in the nation's future.

Realistic responses to the mainland's population issues will not begin with ending the one-child policy. They will begin only when Beijing recognises that the policy always was an arrogant irrelevance.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator

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