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How do you persuade people to have more children, after you've spent 35 years forcing them, sometimes brutally, to have fewer children?

That is the question facing authorities in China, who are now facing a fast-shrinking working-age population, and thus the prospect of the world's largest labour shortages, and are talking openly this week of replacing their infamous one-child policy, officially in effect since 1980, with a two-child policy, which would force people to have more children than they desire (the average Chinese family currently has 1.7 children).

In other words, it appears that Beijing has taken the wrong lesson from its four-decade experiment in population control.

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As my colleague Nathan Vanderklippe noted in his detailed examination of the One-Child legacy, the policy has, since 1971, resulted in 336 million legally mandated abortions (and many more unofficial ones), 196 million sterilizations and the non-consensual insertion of 403 million intrauterine devices (these practices peaked in the 1980s, but have been reported in recent years in some parts of China); there may be as many as 13 million "ghost" citizens who exist without any official documentation because they were second children (or first children of an undesired sex).

The years since 1980 have indeed seen the Chinese population, once considered out of control, stop growing exponentially; in fact, it is now close to shrinking.

But that astonishing shift has had nothing to do with the one-child policy. Two other extraordinary things took place during that 35-year period, both of them closely related: Poverty rates plummeted, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of near-starvation poverty into comparative comfort; and China shifted from being an agrarian to an urban economy, with more than half of Chinese now living in cities.

Those two phenomena likely account for close to 100 per cent of China's fast decline in family size; the one-child policy contributed almost nothing. How do we know this? Because other poor countries have achieved even more dramatic declines in family size without any fertility policies, forced sterilizations or one-child limits. Iran, for example, has seen its family size plummet from 7 children per family in 1980 to 1.8 today, despite being ruled by a theocratic regime; this was done simply through urbanization and rising incomes. Other countries that have fallen below 2 children per family without aggressive birth-control policies include Turkey, Vietnam, Lebanon, Thailand, Brazil, Chile and the United Arab Emirates.

China should rightfully celebrate the stabilization of its population – but it should regard the one-child policy as an embarrassing legacy of the Cultural Revolution era, one that contributed nothing significant to the population decline and, in fact, did a lot of damage to China's economy, its gender equality, its human rights and its psychological well-being.

Recent research has shown that the one-child policy has hurt rates of entrepreneurship; that the competitive pressures it has induced have reduced the marriage rate; that the "little emperor" phenomenon it has created has caused a sharp rise in childhood obesity rates, which has led to other health problems such as diabetes.

Worse, it means that China has as many as 40 million "missing" women – that is, female Chinese who would exist if equal numbers of boys and girls were being born. While this discrepancy – which implies that sex-selective abortion or infanticide are being practiced – is not as severe as in, for example, northern India, it still suggests that the one-child policy is creating forms of sex discrimination that were not previously part of Chinese society. (There were, by the most recent estimates, 4.4 extra boys for every 100 girls in the 1980s, and 7 extra in the 1990s and 2000s). Furthermore, it means that those girls who are born to two-child families suffer educational discrimination compared to children from one-child families, receiving on average almost a year less education than their brothers.

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The one-child policy has also created a widespread of unfairness and corruption, because it is not evenly applied. In much of China, you rarely see families with fewer than two children; the fines for having a second child are, for many families, negligible, or simply ignored. But among families whose employment is close to the state, or those in some poor rural districts which still have rigid administrations, it can be expensive, restrictive and oppressive.

The lesson Beijing should have learned is that none of this was necessary: Family sizes would have dropped, and population would have stabilized, anyway. It was the economic and social-development policies that were a triumph; the family planning was an unnecessary sideshow.

But in contemplating a policy to expand the workforce by demanding or encouraging two children per family, China risks repeating its error. Coercing people to have more children is hardly better then coercing them to have fewer – and it almost never works. Iran and Turkey are in the midst of nationalist campaigns to try to persuade their families to have more than one child; there is little sign that this has succeeded.

What causes people to have more children, as France and other European countries have learned, is social security. If sustainable housing, all-day schooling, child care and social services are securely and easily available, women will both enter the workforce in greater numbers and have the number of children they wish to have (which is often more than they actually have). By denying these services to a large proportion of the population – including many of the second siblings of two-child families – China has made its birth rate lower than it needs to be. Rather than introducing another forceful family-planning policy, even better results could be achieved simply by reversing the unfortunate effects of the first one.

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