China's "one child Policy" is the mother of all social experiments in our modern era. Enforced by the power of a police state for three decades running, this astonishingly ambitious program aims to achieve nothing less than the wholesale transformation of childbearing patterns of the largest country in the world. Through locally determined birth targets, vigilant surveillance of prospective mothers, and state pressures ranging from the threat of job loss to crippling financial penalties and involuntary forced abortion, the policy has already driven China's birth rate far down--below the replacement level--in the name of accelerating the country's economic development.
By the lights of planners in Beijing, this program has been a glorious success. On the eve of the One Child Policy in 1978, China's total fertility rate (tfr) was on the order of three births per woman per lifetime; well above the replacement level of 2.1. There is some uncertainty about China's fertility levels today--not least because of the incentives to conceal births--but there is no doubt that childbearing nationwide is now far below the replacement level, and has been for around two decades. Both the United Nations and the U.S. Census Bureau estimate China's current tfr at about 1.7 to 1.8; some put it at 1.6 or even lower. In China's largest metropolitan areas, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, women today may be averaging less than one birth per lifetime.
But social experiments always have unintended consequences. In the case of China's One Child Policy, these consequences are now becoming evident, and are no less breathtaking in scale than the dreams entertained by the coercive visionaries in Beijing who set this scheme in motion. Inexorably--and by now inescapably--a host of new and unfamiliar demographic problems have arisen, all of which will plague China's next generation. These problems will compromise economic development, strain social harmony and place the traditional Chinese family structure under severe pressure; in fact, they could shake Chinese civilization to its very foundations.
Nicholas Eberstadt is the Henry Wendt Scholar in Political Economy at AEI.