The Unintended Consequences Of China's One-child Policy

It has been 34 years since the People's Republic of China introduced their one-child policy, a population control measure that restricts the reproductive practices of married couples. But as the Chinese government continues to proclaim the policy as being a tremendous success, the one-child rule has also introduced a slew of unforeseen problems, ranging from widespread female infanticide to alleged personality deficits. And looking ahead to its long term effects, it's becoming increasingly clear that China is about to confront an entirely new set of problems.

One-child policy

China imposed the one-child rule in 1978 to curb the growth of its massive population. The communist nation, which has a long history of implementing grandiose megaprojects and sweeping social reforms, was hoping to relieve the pressure exerted by its large population on various social, economic, and environmental realms.

The Unintended Consequences Of China's One-child Policy

Today, the government claims that the policy is working and that it has prevented an additional 400 million births — this in a country populated by 1.3 billion people. Moreover, they claim that the one-child rule has introduced a slew of benefits, including an enhanced ability to deliver healthcare and manage economic growth. At the same time, the government also argues that it allows families to save considerable amounts of money.

This being said, however, the one-child policy has undeniably resulted in unforeseen problems, many of which strongly indicate that tough times lie ahead. This unprecedented social experiment, it would seem, is not without its problems.

A dearth of girls

First and foremost are the problems of female abortions and infanticide. After the one-child rule was implemented, many families clung to traditional preferences for a male heir (among other cultural and economic motivations). As a result, abortions of females have become commonplace, as well as the killing of babies born post-partum.

The Unintended Consequences Of China's One-child Policy

To address the problem, some districts implemented a policy where, if the first born was a girl, the couple could have another child. But that was no guarantee the second child wouldn't also be a girl — creating another scenario in which an abortion might be seen as necessary.

And now, decades after the one-child rule was implemented, the numbers look absolutely damning.

Writing in her book, Unnatural Selection, Mara Hvistendahl notes that, in a natural state, there are 105 boys born for every 100 girls. In China, however, the male number has crept up to 121 — and as high as 150 in some districts.

Over the course of several decades, this has resulted in millions upon millions of abortions — many of which have been instigated by women, either by the mother, or sometimes the mother-in-law.

"Surplus men"

Needless to say this has resulted in a society in which men greatly outnumber women — by a factor of 32 million. In 2005 alone there were more than 1.1 million excess births of boys — and this despite the fact that sex selective abortions are illegal in China. Clearly, couples are turning a blind eye to the law and are finding ways to both get the fetal screening done, as well as the abortion.

The Unintended Consequences Of China's One-child Policy

This is not a good situation. "Historically, societies in which men substantially outnumber women are not nice places to live," writes Hvistendahl, "Often they are unstable. Sometimes they are violent."

She points to examples in history, such as fourth century B.C. Athens and China's Taiping Rebellion in mid-19th century — both of which were the result of wide scale female infanticide. These eras were characterized by wide scale crime and violence.

In China, this practice has now resulted in a "surplus" of men who have little hope of marrying. Hvistendahl notes that these men tend to accumulate in the lower classes where the risk of violence is accentuated. Moreover, unmarried men who have low incomes tend to get restless — and in fact, areas with skewed gender balances tend to experience higher rates of crime.

And because it's harder to find a wife, men are having to literally buy or bid for them. This has contributed to China's elevated household savings rate where parents are having to squirrel away money in order to secure a bride for their son. It has also led to a boom in the mail order bride business — and prostitution.

And as a recent analysis by Wei Xing Zhu has shown, the imbalance is expected to worsen in the coming decades; the biggest gaps currently exist between the one to four-year old group — which means they'll be the ones having to deal with the fallout in about in 15 to 20 years.

The 4-2-1 problem

By the midpoint of the century, more than a quarter of the Chinese population will be over 65. And it will be at this point in time (if not sooner) that young adults will face an unprecedented burden of care — what's been dubbed the 4-2-1 problem.

What this means is, given that most Chinese citizens don't have siblings, each child will likely have to care for their two parents — and very possibly their four grandparents (hence the 4-2-1 problem).

Statistically speaking, for every 100 people aged 20 to 64, there will be 45 people aged over 65, compared to 15 today. This will put a tremendous strain on the younger generations.

Negative population growth

There's also the problem of rapidly declining population growth. According to a recent census, China's population grew 5.8% since 2000, from 1.27 billion to 1.34 billion — a significant slowdown from the previous census which indicated a rate of 11.7%. Simultaneously, the proportion of Chinese aged 14 and under fell to 16.6% (compared with 22.9% in the previous census). According to Wang Feng, a demographer and director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, this points to an astounding low fertility rate below 1.5 children per couple.

Assuming that rate holds, and given another stretch of time in which the one-child rule remains in effect, China could face an unprecedented population drop.

The Unintended Consequences Of China's One-child Policy

As a result, Chinese demographers have been asking the government to reconsider the one-child policy. And if statements made by President Hu Jintao back in April 2011 are of any indication, the rule may be under review. Other commentators, however, insist that the Chinese government is steadfast in their support of the policy and that it's not going anywhere anytime soon.

But they may have little choice. A declining population means fewer productive workers (if not consumers). Some fear that the Chinese labor force has hit its peak and will start to decline in just a few years. And in fact, it's expected that China's growth will moderate from 10-12% between 7-9% over the next few years.

"Little Emperors"

Another implication of the one-child policy is what's referred to as the "little emperor" syndrome. Some social psychologists contend that many Chinese children, because they have no siblings, are not properly socialized into society. And in fact, these so-called Chinese singletons have been accused of being over-indulged, lacking in self discipline and having no adaptive capabilities.

The Unintended Consequences Of China's One-child Policy

The problem with these claims, however, is that they're completely anecdotal and lacking in actual scientific research.

That said, the idea of creating a country without siblings does on the face of it appear to be a risky social experiment. There is much evidence to suggest that birth order has a tremendous impact on the development of unique familial personality types. In essence, China has created an entire generation of exclusively first born children — this could be dramatically reducing the diversity of personality types in that country.

But as noted, the one-child era, while arguably serving a purpose, may be at its end phase. The Chinese government, looking to keep the country socially and economically healthy, may have little choice but to reform the laws.

Other sources: Mara Hvistendahl - Unnatural Selection, WSJ, BBC, HuffPo, CBC, Soberlook, Thinking Chinese.

Banner image: Photograph: IISH Stefan R. Landsberger Collection/Babies & Books Exhibition. Inset images: Reuters, Chinese Posters, Reuters, noahpinionblog, joelsyearinchina.