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CHINA. Beijing. The He family, at home. He Yiran, 1, is the second child in the family. Families had trouble registering their second child in the one-child state.Sean Gallagher/The Globe and Mail

In China, the Communist Party has wrapped up an epic policy meeting of about 400 top party leaders. The result? A dense 22,000-word blueprint for the country's future. Buried between economic proposals to allow more private investment in banking and another giving farmers more land rights is a particularly revolutionary promise: to loosen China's long-standing and much criticized one-child policy.

The change would allow two children for families where at least one parent is an only child. It's a small change from current rules, which allow a second child only if both parents are only children. Nevertheless, this represents the first significant amendment to the one-child policy in nearly 30 years.

Back when it was first introduced in 1979, the rule was meant to address the very real problem of population growth, which had spiked under Mao Zedong. He encouraged large families – and the population doubled from about 500 million in 1949 to nearly a billion three decades later. His economic policies were simultaneously undermining the country's ability to feed itself. When Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, the government set a new goal: zero population growth by the year 2000.

China never hit its no-growth goal, but it came pretty close – about half-a-per-cent annual growth, according to the World Bank. Whether aiming for zero growth was a good idea is debatable. What isn't up for argument is the one-child policy's terrible human costs: forced late-term abortions, abortions for sex selection, a widening gender gap, and emotional trauma for parents. The government acted as though the making of children were like the production of widgets – something to be manipulated and controlled in order to achieve a desired economic outcome.

But it's the policy's unintended economic consequences that are now precipitating change. With so few children, China is rapidly aging. Its population over the age of 65 is soaring, and at one of the fastest rates in the world. The International Monetary Fund warns that China's work force will soon fall into "precipitous decline." It predicts a labour shortage of almost 140 million workers by early 2030, with "far-reaching implications."

Reform of this abhorrent social policy is a welcome step forward for human rights, but the motivation is not humanitarian; it's economic. The consequences of China's failed experiment in social engineering are as far-reaching as the pain it has caused two generations. Its effects will haunt Chinese society – and its economy – for decades to come.