China’s recent announcement that it will end its one-child policy is unlikely to halt a demographic decline that could lead to more social and political instability in the coming decades, analysts say.
China’s Communist Party said on Thursday that it would now permit couples to have two children to help counteract an aging population, though the change must still be approved by the national legislature. Authorities had eased the policy in recent years by allowing parents who were only children to have two children themselves.
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However, any boost to China’s population would not materialize for at least a few decades, experts say, a vexing reality for Party officials concerned about a shrinking labor force and slower economic growth. Additionally, Chinese families’ preference for boys has resulted in millions more men than women in the country, a gender imbalance that has exacerbated abuses such as the trafficking of rural women.
"Even if couples started to have two children tomorrow, we still have 20 to 25 years worth of children who will grow up, and so that shrinking of China’s labor force and abnormal sex ratios is going to continue among the young adult population for the next quarter century," said Valerie Hudson, a professor at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, in an interview. "That horse has left the barn."
Previous experiments by the Chinese government have shown that even if families are granted the option of having two children, they often opt for one due to the cost and prevailing social norms, said Hudson, who researches demographics in Asia. Couples, especially those whose first child was a girl and are desperate for a boy, could also abort their second child if it is not a male. Chinese parents typically prefer a son to take care of them when they retire.
"There’s not going to be a baby boom because of this two-child policy," Hudson said.
Instituted by the Party in 1980 after Mao Zedong’s death, the one-child policy was designed to slow the growth of China’s rural population, mostly poor farmers who officials viewed as unproductive. It has often been enforced through coercion. Since the 1970s, Chinese doctors have performed 336 million abortions, 196 million sterilizations, and have inserted 403 million intrauterine devices, typically in forced procedures, according to statistics compiled by the Christian rights group All Girls Allowed.
In addition to forced abortions, noncompliant families can also be fined, evicted from their homes, or jailed—punishments that are unlikely to go away under the Party’s new policy, Hudson said.
"These kinds of human rights abuses will continue—only now it will be about third children instead of second children," she said.
It remains unclear whether the government will reimburse families with two children, or if second children will now be able to attend school, she added.
Authorities are now grappling with the economic consequences of decades of population control. China’s working-age population declined last year for the first time in two decades. By 2050, according to United Nations estimates, nearly 500 million Chinese will be age 60 or older—projected to be one of the oldest populations in the world.
A graying population with fewer workers creates a host of problems, Hudson said. Economic growth will likely weaken as the labor force contracts, wages rise, and exports become more expensive. Demand for social services will increase as the elderly population dwarfs the number of workers available to take care of them.
Chinese social networks, known as guanxi, will also break down as only children lack the siblings, cousins, uncles, and aunts to help them navigate a society without the rule of law, wrote economist Nicholas Eberstadt in the Wall Street Journal.
"Some demographers were finally able to make the case [to the Party] that this was going to have a catastrophic effect on the Chinese economy if they didn’t do something now," Hudson said.
There has already been a "huge outpouring of grievances" from families who had only one child and say they deserve compensation for their sacrifice, she said. If those grievances continue and people turn their anger toward the Party, officials could increasingly "resort to nationalism and jingoism" to maintain control and quell discontent. That could result in more aggressive interventions by Beijing in regional conflicts.
The U.S. Navy issued a challenge to China this week by sailing a destroyer within 12 nautical miles of one its manmade islands in the South China Sea, where Beijing is constructing military facilities on formerly submerged reefs. U.S. officials say China’s attempts to control the sea’s disputed territories threaten international trading routes and raise the risk of conflict.
"China not only has dimmer economic prospects and a lot of grievances, but they now have a highly masculine young adult population," Hudson said. "For the Chinese government, this is going to be a tiger ride for a long time."