Joel Brinkley

China’s one-child policy is unlikely to end soon

Updated: 2013-11-29T23:05:23Z

By JOEL BRINKLEY

Tribune Content Agency

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. They’re leaving that up to the local and provincial governments — officials who have much to lose and will likely do their very best to forestall the change.

After all, who collects the fines from families with too many children? The local governments. The People’s Daily, the party’s flagship newspaper, estimates that, collectively, these rapacious 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 officials do not appear to be in Xi’s sight.

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 use the proceeds to make their offices’ debt payments and pocket the rest. President Xi said he was going to take on the land-seizure problem, but he has done nothing of note.

If local officials are willing, if not eager, to throw people out of their homes, how likely are they to give up all that income from second-child fines? And how about the unwanted costs of new schools, pediatricians and other costs that a rising population would bring?

The one-child policy won’t end anytime soon — even though it 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. 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 in factories and executive offices? Already the price of labor in China is rising — an estimated 8.4 percent this year — because, with fewer workers competing for jobs, businesses have to offer higher salaries.

The results are already being seen. Scores of foreign companies are fleeing to states with lower wage scales.

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 is ensuring an ever-worsening economic future for decades to come.

Joel Brinkley is the Hearst professional in residence at Stanford University.

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