There is a reason why every major faith in history has been pro-natalist. In essence, the decision to raise children is a statement of belief in the future, affirming that society will essentially be fair and the world more or less rational. Bringing children into the world, no matter the burdens and costs, is not only based on hope; it also generates hope. It’s a psychological investment in the prospect of a better world.
So what happens in a society when the time horizons of natural family life are shattered and social norms are inverted? Welcome to China, which is currently trying to draw to a close what is perhaps the largest-scale social experiment in human history: the “one-child policy.”
The one-child policy was introduced in 1979, after three decades of political-economic turmoil, in hopes that smaller families would help China deal with the extreme poverty the nation faced. In 1980, the policy was given teeth as Communist Party members were directed to have only one child, and in 1982 it was made universal and enshrined in the constitution. By 2014, however, facing demographic shortfalls, the Chinese government started to relax the policies, allowing families to have two children if one of the parents was an only child. In 2015, the one-child policy was formally abolished.
A great deal has been written about China’s massive social experiment. Most of the literature focuses on two consequences of the policy, one economic and one social. As to the former, conventional wisdom holds that the policy, if successful, would lead fairly soon to a demographic derangement in which too few young workers would be needed to support too many retirees. That would leave much less money for investment, and consequently become a drag on economic growth. As to the latter, social consequence, many have remarked on the inversion of the traditional ratio between the number of grandchildren and grandparents in society. The phenomenon of only-child “princes/princesses” has also been widely discussed as being dissonant with traditional Chinese values.
What has not been widely discussed is whether the pro-natalist instincts largely snuffed out by state decree can also be reignited by state decree.
Some social policies are easier to turn on than to turn off. Government directives can ratchet down birth rates, but can they ratchet them up again? Particularly in times of affluence, raising birthrates means lowering self-indulgence. This challenge is hardly limited to China; across the developed world, birth rates are drifting down as income levels and education levels climb. China put the power of state coercion on top of that trend, turning what can arguably be considered natural into something that was anything but.
No society in recorded history has ever experimented in such a grandiose fashion, so there is no historical guide to what will happen. But it seems safe to say that China’s efforts to stabilize its birth rate and to manage its demographics will face unforeseen challenges.
Going forward, China will likely move from merely ending the one-child policy to adopting pro-natalist policies, initially with messaging and symbolism, but eventually to include tax credits and privileges (such as school preferences), and even bounties or direct stipends for families that have two or three children, as is done in many Western countries. These efforts will probably disappoint expectations, in part because it can take several years to recognize a trend and in part because a consensus must be built that does not flatly discredit the previous consensus.
The worst case, but also the most likely in my view, is that China will suffer a long-term population decline. A hint that this is already starting to happen is that demographers have noted that the Chinese government has ceased publishing certain statistical tables that would provide more accurate measures of total fertility rates.
The broader question is the “so what” question: What does this all mean? Let’s look at the possible political-economic and social implications.
In some core geopolitical respects, such as the national economy or military capabilities, a declining population probably means little, this despite the considerable shift in real numbers. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that China’s population will peak at more than 1.4 billion around 2030, and by 2050 it will be down to 1.3 billion. This would be the greatest population drop in history in absolute terms, but it could be largely irrelevant to conventional calculations of national strength.
Increasing reliance on capital goods and technology means that China can continue to enjoy high rates of GDP growth even with a shrinking population. Similarly, military capabilities will increase as the PLA continues its shift to more technology-intense solutions. There are interesting second-order national security effects, because a smaller labor force will place a greater burden on China’s retirement system, and increased labor competition means that the PLA will have to decide whether to draw from the less capable elements of society, or significantly increase pay, or open certain military specialties to women.
These are largely manageable challenges. If China were an open society, perhaps a military comprised mainly of only-children would generate an anti-military war constituency in the form of very nervous parents. But in a closed society like China’s no mechanism for parents to complain about the risk posed to their only child exists. So a declining population need not presage major political implications. The social implications, on the other hand, could be extensive.
China is creating a nation in which the central mechanism of instruction, the chief means of transmitting information and social norms, has been degraded. A one-child policy means that siblings are rare, as are cousins, aunts, and uncles. Normal family social interactions and normal social skills are weakened. Negotiating skills, friendship skills, core learning channels, and corrective mechanisms are all diluted.
Has there ever in human history been such an extraordinarily atomized society? On matters large and small, this could be a major driver of future Chinese behavior. No one is more aware of this than the Chinese themselves, who now use the term “Giant Infants” more often than “princes” to describe the over-indulged single child. An examination of this phenomenon by a Chinese psychiatrist in a book entitled A Country of Giant Infants was a best seller until the government banned it.
A partial substitution for the more normal family structure is the electronic family. There might not be guidance from siblings, but there are online ratings and reviews. Crowd-sourced opinions matter. Conformity provides safety. Key opinion leaders drive consumer behavior. Smart-phone apps and social networking are powerful in China not just because it is a networked society, but because alternative channels are not as readily available.
Jean Twenge has identified the social implications of the smartphone on American millennials, calling them the iGen: “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health.” The advent of the e-family at a moment of limited families suggests that a nation will rise to adulthood with less experience in dealing with normal disagreements, finding consensus, and developing leadership skills. Why not rely on the wisdom of electronic crowds?
And conformity has particular value in a closed society. Your smartphone becomes your reality check rather than other, flesh-and-blood people. We can see why China is an avidly digital nation and why celebrity culture is so powerful there. Apps are easier to deal with than people, and it is easier to mimic a celebrity than it is to develop a genuine friendship.
If a person has few if any immediate peer-cohort relatives—siblings and cousins—and if the world is on your smartphone, what is the point of going out? China is also the largest e-sport nation on earth. It offers the joy of competition with none of the friction or uncertainty of interaction. But as Twenge observes: “Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.”
Smaller families also make it easier to live for oneself. Why not enjoy life? Why not enjoy the moment if there is no need to be prudent for the sake of others? What do attitudes that arise from such temptations mean for social trust building in the future?
One-child households also mean more men than women, not just in China but in most of East Asia, because of sex-selective abortions. This in turn means more unmarried men. Media attention on the misery of single men longing for companionship will rise. More important, the unsuccessful singles will be disproportionately in the less-educated and less-economically productive segments of society, making modern China perhaps the largest Social Darwinist experiment in history.
And will marriage decline in importance as well? Part of the value of a marriage is to provide a structure in which to raise a family, but if there is no family, does the marriage itself become less valued as an institution? Over the past decade, the divorce rate in China has more than doubled.
Beyond the gender and marriage implications, population decreases should also facilitate the greater participation of women and minorities in the economy. That, in turn, tends to correlate with lower live birth rates. So it is possible that demographic decline could in some respects become a self-reinforcing trend.
The ultimate irony of the One-Child Policy is particularly striking. The policy was adopted in 1979, just as Deng Xiaoping’s market-oriented reforms were being launched, perhaps making the initiative obsolete at its inception. But a re-examination of Mao’s economic policies could begin only after his death in 1976, and it took several years for Deng to consolidate power. Economic policies could not be adapted to meet national needs. Instead, the nation had to adapt to meet the needs of state-directed economic policies. That the One-Child Policy has transformed China is unarguable. That China ever really needed this transformation is doubtful. Whether it will manage to endure it without massive and still unpredictable burdens remains a very open question.