China must draw the right lessons from the failures of its one-child policy

Yasheng Huang says the policy ran for far too long, and may not even have been necessary in the first place

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 November, 2015, 6:47pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 November, 2015, 8:09pm

In 1983, the UN gave China and India awards for their efforts to control the population. The recipient for India was its then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. She famously pushed for a compulsory sterilisation campaign and even suspended elections in order to enforce it. Her programme failed miserably, and one of its enduring effects is a pervasive distrust of India’s health care system, which still plagues public health efforts today.

By contrast, China’s one-child policy was in place for 35 years until this October, when the government announced a shift to a “one couple, two children” policy.

There are many other differences between China and India that would account for a lower fertility rate in China

The contrast in duration between the Chinese and Indian population control policies cannot be sharper, and it is this, among other differences, that prompted some Western observers to argue that the authoritarian Chinese system is more capable of enforcing politically tough but economically rational policies.

The reality is much more complicated. It is true that India has a higher fertility rate than China and it is also true that India could not enforce population controls as effectively as China has. But there are many other differences between China and India that would account for a lower fertility rate in China, regardless of policies. Chinese women enjoy a higher socio-economic status than Indian women. Chinese basic education and public health are far superior to those in India. All these factors would have led to a declining fertility rate in China even if China did not have the one-child policy in place.

READ MORE: Ending the one-child policy is just the start for China

Chinese officials often make the claim that the one-child policy was responsible for preventing 400 million births. Many demographers question this claim on the grounds that the fertility rate had already begun to decline even before the policy was put in place. Worldwide, declining fertility has followed economic growth, rather than the other way round, and Chinese growth would have driven down the Chinese rate substantially on its own. Notwithstanding the suffering and emotional toll the policy has inflicted on Chinese people, to add insult to injury, it might not have been necessary in the first place.

But why did the Chinese government feel the need to resort to such a draconian policy in 1978? The simple fact is that China missed ample opportunities to adopt far less intrusive, more humane and more modest population controls in the 1960s and 1970s. The reason is that the one-party system – later lauded for its ability to enforce draconian policies – suppressed and killed off initiatives and ideas that could have led to a lowering of the fertility rate earlier on.

READ MORE: Communist Party powered by history? Why China’s one-party rule is facing a legitimacy crisis

In 1957, Professor Ma Yinchu, then the president of Peking University, put forward a proposal that the government should begin to curb fertility. Instead of acting on his advice, Beijing directed official media to attack Ma’s ideas on the grounds that he was questioning the superiority of the socialist system to deliver growth and employment. In 1960, Ma was forced to resign from the presidency of the university.

In 1957, the Chinese population stood at 640 million. The failure to act on Ma’s advice was estimated to have resulted in 300 million extra births. If this is accurate, the policy mistakes of the Chinese government are almost comparable to the exaggerated claim of the achievements of the one-child policy.

The other effect of the one-party system was that the one-child policy persisted long after its unproductive effects became known. One huge effect of the one-child policy has been the imbalance in the male/female birth ratios.

Because males have a higher mortality rate, evolutionary logic compensates for this by having more male births than female births. For the world as a whole, this ratio is around 1.07, meaning there are, on average, 1.07 male births for every female birth.

READ MORE: Why China needs to find a place in society for its growing number of unmarried men

The male/female birth ratio for China is 1.12, according to some estimates, or as high as 1.19, according to others. For the population cohort under the age of 15, there are 1.17 boys for every girl. There is little doubt that the one-child policy, rather than a cultural preference for boys, is the reason for this imbalance. Countries that share the cultural gender bias with China but do not have population control policies exhibit normal male/female birth ratios. For example, the ratio for North Korea is 1.06, and 1.07 for South Korea. The claim that the one-child policy was effective is correct but its effectiveness seems to have been primarily on female births.

China will suffer the consequences of this imbalance for decades to come. Research by Professor Shang-Jin Wei of Columbia University shows that high male-to-female population ratios are associated with high savings rates. This dynamic may very well be responsible for China’s stubbornly low consumption-GDP ratio, which is now threatening its growth prospects when investments are slowing.

By 2020, there will be as many as 30 million “surplus men”, that is, 30 million “bare branches” – a Chinese term for men who cannot find a wife. The political and social implications are massive.

Two researchers, Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea M. den Boer, have studied the close connections between gender imbalances and conflicts, including rebellions in China that were attributed to such imbalances.

READ MORE: Two-child policy is essential if China is to avoid a demographic crisis

Their conclusion is stark: “Men who are not provided the opportunity to develop a vested interest in a system of law and order will gravitate toward a system based on physical force…” Keep in mind that these 30 million men will become bare branches at a time of slowing gross domestic product and rising unemployment.

By ending the one-child policy, China can begin to address its ageing population problem and its economic and social imbalances

Credit, however, should be given where credit is due. We should applaud President Xi Jinping (習近平) for ending a policy that was, at best, tangentially necessary and, at worst, economically unproductive and socially destructive.

By ending the one-child policy, China can begin to address its ageing population problem and its economic and social imbalances. But we should also recognise that an authoritarian system can be a problem more often than it can be a solution. It can suppress good policy ideas and it can let a bad policy run for too long. Let’s hope that Chinese leaders draw the right lesson from the history of China’s one-child policy.

Yasheng Huang is a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, where he founded and heads the China Lab and India Lab that provide low-cost consulting services to SMEs in China and India. He is a co-author of MIT’s Innovations and Innovating Innovations (both in Chinese)