7 Billion People and “One Child” Policy Revisited


On October 31, 2011, our planet will have reached a population milestone; seven billion people will be competing for resources. Issues obviously arise when population growth is predicted to outpace our planet’s ability to sustain it. These issues are not new either; some may remember having read the gloomy predictions by Malthus in his Essay on the Principle of Population. Though it was written in the 18th and revised through the early 19th century before issues of peak oil use, water conservation, land use, and pollution became prevalent, Malthus nevertheless recognized that unchecked population growth leads to periods of severe societal distress.

Most modern and modernizing countries have taken affirmative steps to curtail rampant population growth through teaching proper use of contraceptives and other pregnancy prevention measures. India, with a current population closer to 1.2 billion individuals is set to eclipse China as the world’s most populous country within the next half century. As indicated in this CNN article, Indian officials go so far as to offer economic rewards to those who subject themselves to sterilization. While such measures may be questioned by some, they are defended as being totally voluntary. Still other countries have used far more draconian measures to slow population growth. The primary and often criticized case is China and its contentious “One Child” policy. Is this policy more attractive as a desperate measure to curtail population booms, especially in Asia where more than one-third of the seven billion people live? I argue that it is not, as its effects on the population and the socio-economic imbalances it has created will prove to be detrimental to China’s social and economic development in the long run.

At a current population of 1.34 billion people, China currently holds the world’s record as the most populous country.  This article indicates that when the “One Child” policy was adopted in 1979 it was not intended to be a permanent solution. China was willing to sacrifice one or two generations until the replacement levels reached an average of 1.5 children per woman of reproductive age. According to population studies cited here, in 1955 China’s fertility rate was 6.1 children per mother of reproductive age. Since then it has fallen to 1.8 in 2010. It is unclear whether the policy will actually be terminated upon reaching its goal. Canadian demographer and former United Nations Fund for Population Activities representative, Aprodicio Laquian, states in the CNN article that if population control had not been enforced in this manner, China would most likely be economically and socially worse off today.

Is Laquian right in his assertion that China has economically benefited? In the short term, perhaps there is some merit in his statement; but China seems to be headed for long term problems if its population control measures are not eliminated or significantly changed.  Businessweek points to a major problem in population trends resulting directly from the One Child policy. Citing UN population studies, the article explains that the pool of 15 to 24 year olds (those most likely to be employed in the numerous factories supplying foreign markets with low-cost products) will fall by 62 million by 2025. Last year, 68% of China’s exports, of the type referenced above, were valued at $1.09 trillion. The problem is clear; the increasing cost of labor, due to a reduction in supply, will  likely drive up the cost of goods making them less attractive globally.

Other social issues are looming.  Today China has a rudimentary security and retirement system in place which struggles to support the current elder population. It is lacks medical facilities for the elderly, retirement homes, care facilities, and retirement care workers.  Can China put in place  a comprehensive and capable care system in time to meet the demands of its aging population over the next four decades and, if it can, the obvious question is, at what cost to growth?.

The One Child Policy, in combination with the traditional preference for male children, has led to a highly increased rate of selective abortion, infanticide, and abandonment of girls in China. According to this recent article, if left to its own devices, nature produces 104 to 106 males for every 100 girls. China’s ratio is 120 to 100.  This means that there are 30 million men who will never find wives at home. The article states that this disparity has led to the growth of a criminal industry involved with kidnapping women from neighboring countries, contributing to global human trafficking problems.

The negative social and economic consequences of China’s “One Child” policy have had thirty years to come to fruition.  Although China’s economic power has grown exponentially, it may find itself crippled by its own social engineering policies within the next half century. Even if it reverses the policy, the problems mentioned above may not be avoidable. It  has the potential, as a command economy, to dictate where its resources should be spent.  And it can more easily allocate funds to the sectors involved in mitigating the unintended effects of the policy, but such measures may be extraordinarily costly in both the long and short run.  Either way, whether it repeals its policy or not, or funds institutional change, it looks as though China may be headed for a prolonged period of slowed growth as a direct result of its social engineering attempt.