China’s One-Child Policy

The recent changes in China’s one child policy brought back some memories. On my first visit to mainland China several years ago to attend a government sponsored conference, I spent several additional days in Beijing and Shanghai visiting with officials of the central bank, the foreign exchange authority, university officials as well as speaking to several groups including student groups. In addition, I did some of the usual tourist things like the Great Wall, the Hidden City, the Shanghai circus and listened to the quartet at the Peace Hotel. I also visited some night spots frequented by college students. My point is that I wasn’t just isolated in a government hotel as I was the first few days. I got around and felt like I got a good feel of the place.

In the airport lounge awaiting departure, I picked up an English language Chinese newspaper and read an article about how the authorities had made some minor adjustments to China’s one child policy. It struck me then that this was the first time in my extended trip that I saw evidence that I was in a Communist, or, more precisely, totalitarian country. Here was the government telling the people, in great, complicated detail, the few and far between exceptions to the one child per couple mandate. I don’t remember the details, but I remember thinking, wow! The government tells them under what circumstances—and they were few—they are allowed to have a second child. It seemed to me that such an intrusion into what most people would consider their natural inalienable rights as human beings as totally barbaric and unacceptable. How could such a government maintain such social repression while allowing more and more freedom in the economic sphere?

On a subsequent visit to China years later, I was in a small meeting of high level investor types—mainly Americans living in China—when one of participants suddenly said something like, “You do realize, don’t you, that everybody here over 30 years old is an only child.” Well, yes, we all knew about the one-child policy, but those in my delegation, especially me, never thought of it quite like that. Once again, I was struck by the dichotomy of growing economic freedom and repressive government intrusion into private lives. Once again, how can this last?

The new liberalization announced yesterday will allow a family where only one of the two parents was an only child to have a second child. Apparently, the basic rule before required that both parents be an only child. Of course, other details obtain. As a practical matter, this liberalization will likely be widespread since most parents of child-bearing age are themselves products of that policy. But what I wonder is this: how can the citizens of a great nation who are experiencing greater economic freedom and the material fruits of freedom take seriously a government so out of touch with contemporary mores? The government had better scrap the whole thing while it is still in charge. King George found out about inalienable rights the hard way.

Comments (9)

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  1. JD says:

    “The government had better scrap the whole thing while it is still in charge. King George found out about inalienable rights the hard way.”

    I would be surprised to see a violent revolution in China. They are experiencing economic prosperity, not to mention China has no tradition of individual rights.

    • Dewaine says:

      I agree with you on the first part, people who are getting rich don’t overthrow the government. But the second part is definitely changing due to globalization. The Chinese are much more individualistic than ever before. Once China hits hard financial times, expect change.

  2. JD says:

    “It seemed to me that such an intrusion into what most people would consider their natural inalienable rights as human beings as totally barbaric and unacceptable. How could such a government maintain such social repression while allowing more and more freedom in the economic sphere?”

    This says a lot about the significance of “nurture” (as opposed to nature).

    • Sabal says:

      I believe that there are theories about this. People with freedom tend to give it up, people without tend to fight for it. So, ultimately, levels of freedom oscillate across time and place.

      • Dewaine says:

        Interesting. Although, I don’t know that that is a hard and fast rule. I think that people can hold on to their freedom and others may never gain it.

      • JD says:

        As long as we trend upward (more freedom) over time.

        • Sabal says:

          Actually, it seems to me that the oscillations just become more dramatic (no freedom to a lot of freedom, the Soviet satellite nations are a good example of this). I don’t know if we’ll be trending upward in the long run.