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Why China’s One Child Policy Hasn’t Really Changed

China announced last Friday that it would change its one-child policy, offering a little more flexibility to select families: if either parent is an only child, parents are now allowed to have two children. The nation’s Communist Party leadership made these changes after seeing the damage its one-child policy has wrought demographically on its populace: the Wall Street Journal reports that China faces maturing growth, a wide wealth gap, pollution, and the world’s most unbalanced sex ratio. This policy was not changed out of a desire to grant freedom, human flourishing, or strong family structure. It was motivated by pure practicality.

While that utilitarianism isn’t bad, it is not necessarily good either. It means that many parents who want more than one child will still be banned from having them. The government will still dictate the reproductive rights of Chinese parents.

This is not to dismiss the magnitude and importance of this change. The policy has remained unchanged since its formation in 1980, and is one of the largest experiments in state-enforced demographic engineering. But if China made this choice purely out of perceived utilitarian necessity, will it ever grant parental freedom without constraints? There is a likelihood that China could swing from one controlling extreme to another: if there is a shortage of children in China’s future, might they begin mandating married adults to have at least one child? Some sort of 1+ child policy?

This change does not indicate that China’s leaders are ready to diminish their control on society. Rather, this exception to the one-child policy is yet another example of attempted population control. Throughout China, local “family planning service centers” will remain in business. And it is likely that, especially in country regions, the one-child policy will continue to have a scarring effect. The Atlantic highlighted some of these dangers in a Monday article:

…the policy has often been administered with brutal force, leaving behind a painful legacy of illegal abortions and sterilizations. The fines are far too expensive for most in rural China to pay, and a lingering preference for male offspring has led to a spike in sex-selective abortions and even infanticide.

There are several problems that may persist under China’s one-child policy, changed as it is. The aforementioned illegal abortions and preference for male offspring (thus accounting for the country’s unbalanced sex ratio) are two of these. The practice of forcing abortions is another.

In addition, the worst demographic damage has already been done—and will take time to reverse. Forbes contributor Gordon Chang wrote Monday, “China’s future demography has now been set for at least a generation. Population-boosting policies rarely work, but when they do it takes decades for them to have a noticeable effect. What Beijing officials are doing now is both too little and too late.”

The motivation behind China’s one-child policy still remains: control. The government tells only certain parents that they can have only a certain amount of children. This is not freedom. One hopes that the deleterious results of China’s one-child policy will, with time, begin to fade. But before that happens, the country’s undergirding stance on liberty and ethics will have to change.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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