DRAMATIC HUMAN catastrophes, engineered by the Communist Party, punctuated the 30 years following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949: A bloody intervention in the Korean War; manmade famine during the “Great Leap Forward”; the Cultural Revolution. After the rise of more pragmatic Communist leaders in 1979, China settled down (with the notable exception of Tiananmen Square in 1989) and got on with the business of economic growth. Abuse of state power hardly ended, though; it simply took less spectacular form. The “one child” policy, which created havoc one family at a time, epitomized this period.
On Thursday, Beijing finally ended the policy after 35 years, and much of the coverage focused on Beijing’s ostensible reasons for the long overdue decision: the many unintended consequences of a policy that was designed to ease resource scarcity, but which has instead landed China in a long-term demographic predicament. Having reduced births by roughly 400 million, China is on course to a median age comparable to that of the most rapidly aging European societies by 2050, according to the latest United Nations projections. By that year, more than 36 percent of China’s 1.35 billion people will be over 60. Even with its recent rapid economic growth, China is growing old before growing truly wealthy; its shrinking labor force will be hard-pressed to support the millions of dependent elderly.
There’s a broad lesson in this about simplistic Malthusian thinking — as well as a very specific lesson about the characteristic mind-set of totalitarian states. As anthropologist James C. Scott put it in his classic critique of large-scale social engineering, “Seeing Like a State”: “Progenitors of such plans regarded themselves as far smarter and farseeing than they really were and, at the same time, regarded their subjects as far more stupid and incompetent than they really were. . . .[P]lanners ignore the radical contingency of the future . . . whatever awareness they had . . . seemed to dissolve before their faith.”
What also dissolved, in the minds of the one-child policy’s architects, was any shred of compassion. Even if it had succeeded in fine-tuning China’s population growth according to some universally acknowledged criteria, the one-child policy would have been monstrous. The proof of that is the litany of forced abortions, harassed and jailed mothers and female infanticide that the policy brought in its wake, and which continued even after Beijing liberalized the rules five years ago. Those who spoke up in protest, such as dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng — now living in U.S. exile — often wound up arrested and jailed, too.
In altering the one-child policy, the Chinese authorities bowed to reality without openly acknowledging their failure, either practical or moral. To the contrary, they continue to assert power over the Chinese people’s reproductive choices. Would-be parents will still face a two-child per couple limit, still enforced through a system of permits and fines. Given the high cost of child-rearing in China’s crowded cities, many will be deterred from having more than one child anyway. In short, it is too late to reverse the damage and China will suffer the consequences for generations to come.