Friday, April 6, 2007

Thoughts On the One Child Policy

I was surprised to see that this week's text in our conversation class covered the one child policy. Westerners generally think that any controversial topic in China is basically off limits - but that hasn't borne out. We've had texts on poverty, the cultural revolution, and now the one child policy. Granted, we're not digging deep or conducting new research into who was responsible for what (and I imagine there would be some limits placed on that), but we are talking about it.

In the west we tend to think of the one child policy as a terrible infringment on human rights, and in a way, it is - it fundamentally restricts the freedom of reproduction. But if you want to argue that births shouldn't be restricted (at least in a cost/benefits context) you have to be prepared to say that the additional population growth wouldn't be as bad as the policy. We also have to remember that in addition to the horrible crowding and inadequacy of many services (university education, which is ridiculously exclusive, comes to mind), China doesn't have tons of arable land to begin with, and what it has it is losing to water scarcity and soil erosion.

There's even a somewhat liberal side to the policy - minority peoples are exempted. The Uighur family that runs a local restaurant has at least 4 kids.

And as far as forced abortions go, my thinking has come to this - if you're going to have the policy you should enforce it, otherwise get rid of it. How to do that then? Well, you can fine the person or impose other economic penalties, which is generally what they do. Besides being inegalitarian and allowing the rich to do what they want, this just doesn't have enough of an effect - people in the countryside continue to have more than one child and thhe fines don't seem to have an effect. What about putting the parents in jail? Not only do you have to deal with the costs of imprisoning these people and loss of workers and tax revenue, but you have to see to their other children. The only alternative is forced abortion, which seems better to me than imprisoning parents or impoverishing the children through draconian fines. Besides, isn't one of the main problems with forced abortion that you make their reproductive choices for someone, which is what you're already doing by instituting a reproductive policy?

The main problem with the policy seems to be that it doesn't work. China's population is increasing and has never decreased. In fact, it would really be a problem if everyone did follow it - each generation would be less than half the size of the last. Can we say workforce and social security problems?

There's also problems with the fact that in the cities the policy is enforcable and enforced quite rigidly, while in the countryside it is openly flouted. You have a situation in which the most educated and best of people (who are best able to provide for children) are not even reaching half a replacement birth rate, while the country-folk are far surpassing it. The 'eugenic' flavor of this argument troubles me, but then again it's based on education and environment - not the idea that poor, minority, or retarded people are genetically flawed.

In the end, I think China would have more success with a less rigid policy, even if it was much less effective. The fact that people are used to flouting laws here is a big problem - it effects everything from taxes to traffic to corruption. When governments institute unenforcable laws (think of the war on drugs), every other law is undermined in some small way. What needs to happen is a change in the culture (the love of huge families, and especially the preference for boys), and that takes lots of time. I think it would be useful to approach it like we approach public health problems - use incentives to get people to change their behavior with the idea that it's in their own interest.

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