Joel Brinkley: China’s one-child policy unlikely to end soon
By Joel Brinkley
The Chinese Communist Party announced grand plans for “reform” at the end of its third plenum meeting in November, including a promise to end its disastrous one child per family policy.
Don’t bet on it.
That one-child law leads to ugly forced abortions and sterilizations — as well as rampant cheating. Wealthy people have been having as many children as they want. No one tries to stop them, as long as the parents are willing to pay a fine of $50,000 or more.
All of that is bad enough. But the larger problem is that limiting families to one child holds the very real threat of gradually destroying China’s economy.
The Communist Party’s attempt to change the rule is problematic because the party and its subservient central government have no plans to enforce it. No, they’re leaving that up to the local and provincial governments — officials who have much to lose from this and will likely do their very best to forestall the change.
After all, who collects the fines from families that have too many children? The local governments. And estimates published in the People’s Daily, the party’s flagship newspaper say that, collectively, these rapacious local officials garner several billion dollars a year from those fines. Given China’s endemic corruption, you know where most of that money likely goes.
Xi Jinping just completed his first year as China’s president. Soon after taking office last year he announced a campaign against corruption. So far he has prosecuted a few central government officials whose thievery was so obvious that Xi had little choice.
But this anti-corruption campaign hasn’t gone much further, and local government officials do not appear to be in Xi’s sight. Remember, these are the officials who have accrued $2 billion to $3 billion in debt from wanton spending and theft in recent years.
As the U.S. Congressional Commission on China put it in a report last week, “corruption takes many forms in China, from corrupt officials at all levels using their public office for private gain and seizing land for development to corrupt state-owned enterprises gaming the system to their advantage.”
Yes, local governments seize their constituents’ land, then sell it to developers. Many of them use the proceeds to make their offices’ debt payments and then pocket the rest. Upon taking office, President Xi said he was going to take on the land-seizure problem, but a year later he has done nothing of note.
If local officials are willing, if not eager, to throw people out of their homes and sell their property, how likely are they to give up all that income from those second-child fines? And how about the unwanted costs of new schools, additional hospital maternity wards, day-care facilities and pediatricians — among other costs that a rising population will bring?
The one-child policy won’t end anytime soon — even though continuing the policy is leading China into deep economic trouble.
Think about it: If most couples have only one child, then the population falls because parents aren’t having enough children even to replace themselves. That provides fewer and fewer workers for China’s large and growing economy. The United Nations already estimates that China’s workforce will shrink by 67 million people between 2010 and 2030.
And there’s the dilemma: How can an economy grow with fewer people to work factory assembly lines and manage executive offices? Already the price of labor in China is rising because, with fewer workers competing for jobs, businesses and factories have to offer higher salaries. The price of labor is estimated to grow 8.4 percent this year alone.
The results are already being seen. Scores of foreign companies that moved to China for educated, inexpensive labor are fleeing — to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, India and other states with lower wage scales.
Looking at all of this, Mao Qun’an, spokesman for China’s National Health and Family Planning Council, told reporters last week: “Some years in the future, the national policy will be two children per family,” suggesting the party inexplicably has no intention of reining in the local officials.
While the Communist Party waits, in less than 20 years the number of highly employable 20- to 24-year-olds is expected to fall by half — while the state’s ever-more expensive elderly population nearly doubles, from 110 million to 210 million.
Already China’s median age is just over 36, among the world’s highest.
Chinese desperately want their state to grow wealthier and overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy. But in truth, that one-child policy, more than anything else, is ensuring an ever-worsening economic future for decades to come.