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opinion

The world is now divided into two groups of countries: Those that are afraid of becoming unmanageably crowded as their populations soar, and those that are worried about their populations declining as family sizes drop. This second group – the fear-of-shrinking states – is now far more numerous than the fear-of-crowding states, and as of this week it includes the most populated country in the world.

China, by announcing that it will end its infamous one-child policy and replace it with an equally forceful two-child policy, is joining Canada, Germany, Japan and scores of other countries that are searching for policies to keep their working-age populations large enough.

And China, having just completed history's largest experiment in social engineering by trying to control the reproductive habits of a billion people for four decades, offers some valuable lessons in how not to try to use policy to change the direction of your country's population.

It never worked. China's population growth rate peaked in the late 1960s and then began a steep decline as the country urbanized and women gained more education. If you follow the downward slope of the fertility-rate graph from 1969, you find that it doesn't change its trajectory significantly after the 1979 introduction of the one-child policy: Family sizes began falling a decade before, and continued to fall.

Today that line has reached its lowest point, with a Chinese average of 1.7 children per family – that is, it has arrived at the same place as formerly high-birth-rate countries including Brazil and Iran, neither of which used restrictive policies and instead relied on modernization and education to bring family sizes down to the same level.

It was never fair. One thing you notice, after spending any amount of time in China, is that there are plenty of families around you with two children, and a decent number with three. In rural villages, it's difficult to find any with fewer than two children.

That's because the one-child policy was applied very unevenly; in most rural areas it wasn't enforced much. Officially, between 60 per cent and 70 per cent of rural families get permission to have a second child (compared with 10 per cent of urban families). And 200 million of those officially "rural" citizens are living in major cities. They get to have larger families, but they're forbidden to enroll their kids in schools in the largest cities.

In other words, almost everyone in China has some ambition thwarted, or some dream crushed, by these laws. This is a major root cause of the current economic malaise.

Ending it won't solve the biggest problem, which is that Chinese families have a lot more boys than girls; among kids under 15, there are almost 12 boys for every 10 girls. This means that parents are practising sex-selective abortion – and the resulting surplus of males is causing serious problems, including a higher crime rate and high incidences of depression.

This is often attributed to the one-child policy – but a large-scale study of almost five million Chinese found that the vast majority of this sex-selection is taking place in rural areas where two children are permitted. Switching to a two-child policy won't end this practice, but simply enshrine its current structure.

It had many unintended effects. A study by anthropologist Vanessa Fong found that the one-child policy made urban daughters more independent and liberated because, as only children, they had "more power than ever before to defy disadvantageous gender norms while using equivocal ones to their advantage." But the policy has also driven up dowry costs dramatically, resulting in 500,000 Beijing women perversely unable to find partners.

Ending it won't solve the population problem. China's population is going to start falling around 2030. Analyses show that even if the new two-child law is strictly enforced, it will start falling in 2034. If the one-child policy were to continue, it would start shrinking in 2029.

The five-year difference is negligible. But the social and economic effects of fertility policies, in either direction, are dire. And the larger lesson is missed: If you give people what they need to become prosperous, healthy and equal, then population issues become far less of a worry.