China’s One-Child Policy: A Requiem

Tom Flynn

On October 29, 2015, the Chinese Communist Party ended its one-child policy. For thirty-six years that policy had been the planet’s most aggressive, longest-running campaign against overpopulation. It was also a human-rights nightmare, marked by forced sterilizations and compulsory abortions. Especially in rural areas, women faced immense social pressures and devastating fines if they had a forbidden second or third child. Finally, strong cultural preference for male children led to a troubling sex imbalance, with as few as 85 girls born per 100 males. That said, China has claimed that the one-child policy prevented 400 million births. Free Inquiry Senior Editor Vern L. Bullough and his wife, FI Contributing Editor Bonnie Bullough, toured China in 1983, just four years after the one-child policy began. “We have to admire the Chinese for their determination to bring their growth rate under control,” they wrote in Free Inquiry (Winter 1983/84). The Bulloughs frankly discussed the policy’s dark side but also recognized the existential danger if China did nothing to limit population growth. “We wish that some of the more drastic forms of persuasion did not have to be used,” they concluded, “but we have no viable alternatives to recommend.”
Reactions to the policy’s suspension have been varied. Joe Bish of the Population Media Center commented, “I imagine many who are concerned about human overshoot feel this is the final nail in the global demographic coffin.” Count me among that group. I mourn the one-child policy’s passing—not because I’m confident it worked but because of the reasons why China’s Communist leadership apparently abandoned it. I’ll get back to that.

Despite China’s claims, there is reason to suspect that the one-child policy did not accomplish all that much. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen notes that China’s fertility rate had begun plummeting fully a decade before the one-child policy began, and it kept doing so. On Sen’s view, the most likely cause of this decline was not the one-child policy but rather the development widely credited for stunning fertility decreases worldwide—a development no planner saw coming in 1978—ongoing improvements in the education and social empowerment of women.

Irony mounts. If the one-child policy actually did little to depress China’s fertility rate, then its removal is unlikely to drive fertility upward. News accounts suggest that only about 10 percent of Chinese couples now eligible to have a second child wish to do so. Many big-city residents, in particular, feel strongly that they can’t afford more than one child. The Population Reference Bureau estimates that by 2050, the end of the one-child policy will result in only 23 million more births, an infinitesimal difference.

If the One-Child Policy Wasn’t Working, Why Mourn Its Loss?

BBC correspondent John Sudworth toured Rudong, a county in eastern Jiangsu province noted for strict enforcement of the one-child policy. Today, Sudworth noted, “about 30 percent of the population is . . . over the age of fifty—a demographic time bomb that holds up a terrifying spectre of rising social costs and falling worker numbers to a wider country that is just a little way behind.” The “time bomb” Sudworth describes is demographic inversion, the situation in which each successive generation is smaller than the one before it. Chinese leadership’s terror in the face of it, coupled with a likely erroneous belief that the one-child policy had brought it about, are the reasons the policy was abandoned. (Told you I’d get back to that.) But demographic inversion is not a time bomb. Much the contrary, it may be humanity’s sole hope for a sustainable future in centuries to come.

Lest we forget, planet Earth is overpopulated. As I write, it has 7.3 billion people. Even if national birthrates continue to decline across much of the world, United Nations estimates suggest we’re still on track for world population to peak later in this century somewhere between 11 and 17 billion people.

Here’s another statistic: most population specialists think that the largest number of humans our planet can support sustainably is around two billion, maybe three tops. And that’s if most humans live like Europeans, with far smaller consumption and emission footprints than Americans take for granted. To get there from here, we’d need to reduce human numbers roughly threefold. To get there from where we’ll almost certainly be when population crests, we’ll need more like a four- to sixfold reduction.

To be clear, I’m not talking about slower growth. I’m talking about substantial shrinkage—many, many fewer people. If we don’t figure out how to accomplish this in a humane and controlled way—and on a timescale of decades, not centuries—the forces of nature will likely do it on their timetable and in a way that is neither humane nor controlled.

So back to China and its demographic inversion. In places such as Rudong, it is said that the old are about to outnumber the young. Retirees will soon outnumber workers, while workers will outnumber children. That’s awful! But wait . . . that’s what happens when you set out to roll back overpopulation. And it’s a good thing.

If we’re ever going to get from an unsustainable world of seven-plus billion people—much less a near-future nightmare world of 11 or 17 billion people—to the much smaller numbers that our little green planet can sustain long-term, then sustained demographic inversion needs to be our goal. Humanity will face many successive generations during which each new cohort is smaller than its predecessor. That will be how we know we’re succeeding.

What do we see instead? Across the world, developed countries exhibit dramatically reduced birthrates. Places such as Spain, Italy, and Singapore now have lower birthrates than China has achieved. Yet every time a country or region edges close to real shrinkage, leaders panic. “We won’t have enough workers!” “Who will pay to care for the old and infirm?” “We’ll lose competitiveness.” “We’ll be helpless to defend our territory.”

The thing that made me saddest? Rudong has adopted the same disastrous policy as some European countries, offering young couples generous cash incentives to have additional children. And that’s the core of the tragedy. Not even China—bar none, the nation most able and willing to engage in social engineering on a vast, even oppressive scale—has a plan for managing demographic inversion. The mere prospect of it made China’s leaders tremble and hastily change course. Though if Amartya Sen is right, dropping the one-child policy will not restore fertility and demographic inversion will continue all the same. It will be interesting to see how China’s leaders respond to that.

In FI’s December 2007/January 2008 issue, I wrote: “In my view, we desperately need to replace today’s outmoded, growth-dependent economic and political structures with shrinkage-friendly . . . successors. Yet, I’ve seen little evidence that the social sciences are rising to this challenge. Can we develop alternative structures that don’t demand the lubrication of continual growth but can flourish even while contracting? Can we create them in time? Is anybody working on this?”

In the June/July 2015 issue, I reported more hopefully on research aimed at developing ways to structure a robust economy during prolonged demographic inversion. Obviously, much more work is needed; if anyone’s found a magic bullet so far, clearly the Chinese don’t know about it. (Given the Chinese government’s enthusiasm for hacking and its cavalier approach toward intellectual property, it’s a fair guess that what the Chinese don’t know about doesn’t exist.) If I were Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, I’d tap my fortune to fund a Manhattan Project–scale skunkworks staffed by top economists, demographers, technologists, and other experts tasked with figuring out how a consistently shrinking society can function smoothly.

So far, every national leadership confronted with the real possibility of population shrinkage has quailed. China is only the latest. If no one finds a way to break that pattern, we’ll just keep consuming in our teeming billions until our world can no longer support us—or until resource maldistribution, famine, and disease start to bring our numbers down in far more brutal ways than we would ever have chosen for ourselves.

China’s policy change deserves its requiem. But if we don’t learn from it, the requiem for humanity may follow shortly.

Further Reading

Bish, Joe. 2015.“‘One Couple, Two Children’—China’s One Child Policy Is Now History.” Population Media Center, October 30.

Buckley, Chris. 2015. “China Approves Two-Child Policy to Help Economy.” New York Times, October 30.

Bullough, Vern and Bonnie. “Population Con­trol vs. Freedom in China.” Free Inquiry, Winter 1983/84.

Flynn, Tom. 2015. “Overpopulation, Immi­gra­tion, and the Human Future.” Free Inquiry, June/July.

———. “Beyond Ponzi Economics.” Free Inquiry, December 2007/January 2008.

Population Reference Bureau. 2015. “China Abandons One-Child Policy.” October. Ac­­cessed November 4, 2015 at http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2015/
china-ends-onechild-policy.aspx.

Sen, Amartya. 2015. “China’s Enlightenment Moment.” New York Times, November 2.
Shragg, Karen I. 2015. Move Upstream: A Call to Solve Overpopulation. Farmington, Minn.: Freethought House.

Sudworth, John. 2015. “The ‘Model’ Example of China’s One Child Policy.” BBC News Blogs, October 30. Accessed October 30, 2015, at http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-china-
blog-34664442.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


Even China was unprepared to do what will be necessary to not just stop population growth but to reduce human numbers to a sustainable level.

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