THE BLOG
08/21/2015 03:53 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2016

In Praise of China's One-Child Policy

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In the ongoing debate over overpopulation, no country's experience has been more controversial than China's one-child policy. Human rights activists, feminists, pro-life advocates and anti-Communists have all heaped legitimate criticism on the program. But many people concerned about global sustainability see the one-child policy as a courageous collective commitment to the common good that averted untold human suffering and environmental abuse.

Thirty-five years after its implementation, I thought I'd come see for myself. Here's what I learned this summer, during a stint as a visiting professor of environmental policy at Beijing's prestigious Renmin (People's) University. While never popular, most Chinese believe that this extreme governmental intervention was very important for the country's economic prosperity and environmental survival. They also believe the policy is no longer necessary; They are right on all counts.

The one-child policy story is well-known: In September 1980, with population approaching 1 billion, a new pragmatic Chinese government led by Deng Xiaoping set a "one child" legal limit on urban families. Exceptions were made for rural couples and ethnic minorities, who were allowed two. For everyone else, bringing a second child into the world brought a range of sanctions, including heavy fines, loss of employment and societal opprobrium.

As a result, fertility rates began to drop precipitously: starting at 2.8 children per family and stabilizing at 1.6 on average today. Demographers offer a range of estimates. Depending on assumptions, they reckon the policy may have prevented as many as 400 million births.

Critiques of the policy begin with the fact that Chinese birth rates were already falling: in 1970 local fertility rates averaged 5.8. They claim that the drop in fertility had little to do with the policy and more to do with the sociology of Asia during this period. In response, it can be argued that the phenomenal growth in India's population during the same period shows that China probably would not have moved towards demographic stability without a one-child policy.

Disapproval, however, usually focuses on the draconian implementation measures that initially were brought to bear. Although never official policy, there reportedly were many cases where overzealous local authorities enforced involuntary sterilization and abortions. Having only one child meant that many Chinese families abandoned the babies they were not supposed to have; or resorted to infanticide-- especially when girls were born. Although illegal, selective abortion continues and has led to a massive imbalance of males in Chinese society: While naturally there are 1.05 boys born relative to 1.0 girls -- in China the figure is closer to 1.15.

With so many highly-publicized downsides, it is easy to forego a dispassionate assessment of the benefits that the policy produced. Slowing demographic growth has contributed to China's economic transformation. Between 1958 and 1962, less than 20 years prior to the policy's adoption, about 45 million Chinese died of famine and hunger related illnesses.

Poverty still exists throughout China today, but by stabilizing population, the country is capable of feeding itself. It also has been able to support massive infrastructure and industrial expansion, redefining its socio-economic identity. China's recent "weak economic" growth would be welcome by economists in pretty much any other country.

Due to the resulting development and population density (which remains high even with a low birth rate) China's environmental challenges are formidable: With 16 of the planet's 20 most-polluted cities, there are roughly 1.2 million premature deaths due to air pollution annually and losses of 25 million disability adjusted life years. Two-thirds of China's cities lack basic wastewater treatment, leading to massive contamination of surface waters. In many regions, the groundwater level is dropping so fast it can be identified via satellite. With twice the biodiversity richness of the U.S., habitat loss has pushed many species to the brink of extinction.

It is only as demographic growth begins to slow that the country is able to embark on an ambitious journey of ecological rehabilitation. China is the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Its decision makers well understand that trying to cut back on carbon emissions with a rapidly expanding population is like running on a very fast treadmill. Even notwithstanding impressive drops in per-capita emissions, collectively, they can't move forward. The one-child policy creates conditions that should soon allow China to become part of the global solution.

I conducted a, pilot survey among students at the university to get a sense how the younger generation of Chinese sees the one-child policy. Granted, it involved a rarified sample. But the relative unanimity in the empirical results confirmed what I heard in dozens of private conversations.

Roughly 72 percent of students who had an opinion either agreed or strongly agreed that when first adopted, China's the One Child Policy prevented hunger and famine. Some 70 percent believe that it has been "important for improving the country's economic conditions" and a dramatic 88 percent agree or strongly agree that the policy "has been critical for protecting the local environment." Having spent their lives in extraordinarily high densities, it is not surprising that 70 percent feel that the present 1.3 billion population of China is too high. Most would prefer a population size of 1 billion or even 700 million, which one local ecological study called "optimal."

This in no way means that the one-child policy is popular. Despite their recognition of its historic contribution, the students strongly feel that the policy has run its course: 90 percent called for its cancellation -- a very bold statement in the People's Republic. (Indeed, only a handful of female students supported its continuation.)

Three quarters of the responding students were only children with no siblings. But these Chinese young people do not want to return to the congested living of large families. The one-child policy has transformed traditional normative expectations: The vast majority (85 percent) see 2 children as their ideal family size.

And it is likely than when faced with the economic and practical challenges of raising two children in China, most of them will stick to one. Indeed, as the country relaxes its one-child policy it finds that only a tiny fraction of couples eligible to have a second child do so. The associated costs and loss in quality of life are invariably cited as prohibitive. As one colleague told me: "Given the choice, I'm not sure I would want a second child; but I do want to make that decision myself."

Sir David Attenborough, the eminent British broadcaster and naturalist once stated the obvious: 'I've never seen a problem that wouldn't be easier to solve with fewer people and harder if not utterly impossible if there were more." There is no better proof of this axiom than China.

It is very easy to criticize the one-child policy: it was surely stern medicine and its application was unnecessarily severe. So it is well to remember how lucky China is today that the policy was adopted. Due to population momentum it takes decades for demographic policies to manifest. The UN projects that because of rising life expectancy, China's population will continue to grow for another 15 years, before numbers begin decreasing.

When that happens, there will only be 1.5 billion people living there rather than 2 billion who would have absent the policy. That's an enormous difference: 500 million is exactly the number of people living in the EU! Meeting the needs of far fewer people than it would have without a one-child policy, China now has a real chance to address its many challenges and offer its people a better life.