CHINA – It wasn’t so long ago that Chinese officials were bragging about the success of their population control program. When the Chinese Minister of Health, Gao Qiang, visited the U.S. in 2011, he proudly told a horrified group of U.S. Congressmen: “We have eliminated 400 million people from the population. We have eliminated more people than the entire population of the United States” (Steven Mosher writes).
Now comes word that the Party is poised to abandon birth restrictions. Perhaps as early as the end of the year, Beijing will announce that Chinese women are free to have as many children as they wish.
I would like to think that Chinese President Xi Jinping is doing this because he has heard – as I did during my research in China – the cries of China’s women as they were coerced into abortions and sterilizations they did not want. Or because he is appalled by the slaughter of tens of millions of infant girls by infanticide and abortion. Or because he is disturbed by the sight of the resulting “excess” men, 30 million strong, roaming China’s cities and towns, and the explosion of sex trafficking and other crimes that have followed.
But I suspect that such things have nothing to do with Xi’s decision. After all, Chinese Communist Party leaders, beginning with Deng Xiaoping, have long believed that China is overpopulated.
“Use whatever means you must to control China’s population,” Deng reportedly instructed senior officials in 1980. “Just do it. With the support of the Party you have nothing to fear.”
Party officials have been “just doing it” to women ever since. Each year for the past 38 years – in the longest running political campaign in PRC history – they have arrested, fined, aborted, and sterilized millions of women for violating the rules governing childbearing.
Xi is less concerned about the human cost of the massive social engineering program that he inherited – perhaps the most ambitious that any government has ever attempted – than its consequences.
It turns out that you can’t eliminate 400 million Chinese – among the most productive, enterprising people in the world – without creating a gaping hole in both your demographics and your economic prospects.
China, you see, has turned Malthus’ “dismal theorem” on its head. Instead of population growth outpacing food production, as Malthus predicted, in China, we see the opposite. There, we see population control undermining the economy.
China’s population is now aging, its workforce is shrinking, and its economic prospects are dimming. The State Council last year projected that about a quarter of China’s population will be 60 or older by 2030, up from 13 percent in 2010. The country was almost four million workers short in 2016, a number that will grow with each passing year. Overall growth is slowing dramatically, with Harvard’s Kennedy School projecting just 4.4 percent growth annually over the next decade.
Xi Jinping constantly invokes his China Dream, which is one of vaulting past the United States into global primacy. With that dream now threatened by the dearth of young people, he has decided to ramp up reproduction.
His first move in this direction came back in 2015, when he ordered that all couples be permitted to have two children. The end of the one-child policy did not produce the expected baby boom, however. According to China’s Bureau of National Statistics, births have continued to fall, dropping 3.5 percent to 17.2 million last year alone.
There is no reason to think that allowing couples to conceive at will, instead of on command, will make much difference, either. In fact, I believe that the number of births in China will continue to drop dramatically in the years to come. This will reflect both a shrinking population of women in their reproductive years – remember that tens of millions of females in their birth cohorts have been killed – as well as lower fertility desires overall. Most Chinese women now say that they want no more than one, or at most two, children.
Such numbers will not be nearly enough to reverse the demographic decline that China is now experiencing. Reversing this death spiral and stabilizing the population will require the relatively few women available, or at least many of them, to give birth to three or more children.
The “reproductive freedom” that the Party now proposes to offer women may prove only a way station on the road to something much darker – something more closely resembling reproductive servitude than reproductive freedom. President for Life Xi Jinping is unlikely to stand idly by while an aging population and a declining workforce derail his “China Dream” of building a modern, powerful China by 2035.
Does anyone doubt Beijing’s willingness to use coercive, often brutal methods to impose its will on the masses? Anyone who does should ask the Tibetans, the Uyghurs, or China’s vanishing human rights activists about their experience in this regard. For that matter, they should ask any one of the hundreds of millions of women who have suffered under the policies of the past four decades.
State control of reproduction is, in fact, a long-established principle in the People’s Republic. The late Chairman Mao Zedong decreed in the early Fifties that it would be the Party, not the people, who decided family size.
Does anyone doubt that, if Chinese women don’t voluntarily produce enough workers for the high-tech industrial future that Xi has envisioned, that he would hesitate to order that childbearing be made mandatory?
If the coming spring of reproductive freedom fails to produce a bumper crop of babies in the fall, the now-familiar order will come down: “Use whatever means you must to increase the birthrate,” Xi Jinping will direct his senior officials. “Just do it. With the support of the Party, you have nothing to fear.”
And you thought The Handmaid’s Tale was fiction.