A real piece of work: back in the day, that’s what we’d have called my friend Nicholas Eberstadt. By his own confession, Nick left Harvard a convinced Maoist — only to find, during his early graduate work at the London School of Economics, that he couldn’t out-argue British development economist Peter Bauer. So unlike others who will remain nameless, Nick figured out that being left does mean having to say you’re sorry (and wrong), when the evidence overwhelmingly points in a different direction. So he abandoned the intellectual fever swamps of “Marxist analysis,” got very serious indeed, and has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the world’s most creative students of demography.
And one of the bravest. For in September, Dr. Eberstadt became possibly the first man ever to criticize China’s One-Child Policy in China, before an audience consisting of Chinese government officials and a predominantly Chinese World Economic Forum audience.
Eberstadt first noted the human-potential costs of the One-Child Policy. Reminding his audience that perhaps the most familiar face of China in America today is Houston Rockets center Yao Ming (an only child, and the son of two basketball stars), Eberstadt asked his hosts: “Without a One-Child Policy, how many other stars might the Yao family have produced?….That particular possibility has been lost — and we will never know how much further potential for China has been lost, thanks to involuntary birth control.”
The One-Child Policy’s proponents argue that China has experienced enormous economic growth under One-Child. That’s true, Eberstadt conceded; but “development” is more than economics. Consider the many parents who might have wanted more than one child and yet were compelled to “forswear the children they wished to have.” For those parents, economic growth is a poor substitute for their hearts’ deeper longings. Or, as Eberstadt put it, economic growth that doesn’t “meet the most basic of human needs and desires is low quality growth.”
Then there are the about-to-come-due economic fiscal costs of the One-Child Policy. Thanks to fifteen years of below-replacement-level birth rates, China’s working age population is about to start declining — and will continue to decline “more or less indefinitely.” How will an increasingly over-50 population maintain the economic dynamism that the rest of the world has come to expect from China? Moreover, because of the One-Child Policy and its skewing effects on the overall Chinese population, “China’s age profile will be ‘graying’ in the decades ahead at a pace almost never before seen in human history.” Today, China is young; by 2030, China will be “grayer” than the United States.
In twenty years, on current trends, the “normal” Chinese family will be “4-2-1:” four grandparents, two parents, one grandchild.” “Brother,” “sister,” “aunt,” “uncle,” and “cousin” will be abstract terms. What will this do to a society in which family bonds are a crucial component of social capital? And what about the demographic ramifications of sex-selection abortions under the One-Child Policy? That odious practice has created a situation in which, twenty years out, there will tens of millions of unmarried Chinese young men with no marriage prospects — because the wives they might have married were aborted. That’s a vast human and social problem. It’s also a huge international security problem, for that many unmarriageable young men means, historically, an army of marauders.
Echoing Pope John Paul II in the encyclical Centesimus Annus, Nick Eberstadt closed on a humanistic note: “In the final analysis, the wealth of nations in the modern world is not to be found in mines, or forests, or deposits of natural resources. The true wealth of modern countries resides in their people — in human resources. China’s people are not a curse — they are a blessing.” Thus China’s success in “abolishing poverty and attaining mass affluence in the decades and generations ahead” may well depend on a decision by China’s rulers to reverse course and to trust their own people, with respect to the size of their families.
Nick Eberstadt reports that his reception was “cool.” Which is bad news, not for Dr. Eberstadt, but for China.