The United States has been engaged in a lot of international wrangling with China, between its high-tech espionage and escalating tensions in the South China Sea.

However, the unintended consequences of China’s one-child policy may have hit the country harder than any bomb. Though the nation is reversing its course on the number of births allowed, it may be too little too late.

China’s Communist Party said on Thursday that it would now permit couples to have two children to help counteract an aging population, though the change must still be approved by the national legislature. Authorities had eased the policy in recent years by allowing parents who were only children to have two children themselves.

However, any boost to China’s population would not materialize for at least a few decades, experts say, a vexing reality for Party officials concerned about a shrinking labor force and slower economic growth. Additionally, Chinese families’ preference for boys has resulted in millions more men than women in the country, a gender imbalance that has exacerbated abuses such as the trafficking of rural women.

“Even if couples started to have two children tomorrow, we still have 20 to 25 years worth of children who will grow up, and so that shrinking of China’s labor force and abnormal sex ratios is going to continue among the young adult population for the next quarter century,” said Valerie Hudson, a professor at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, in an interview. “That horse has left the barn.”

The following video summarizes the key issues that have lead to China’s new rules:

Melanie McDonagh, contributor for the British publication “The Spectator”, recounts the brutality of the Chinese policy and the lack of feminist protest about what turned out to be a slaughter of millions of girls. She also noted chilling attitude of academic elites.

What struck me personally though was that you’d get, in private conversations, academics with an interest in the environment and population, who would frankly admit that although the policy was no doubt unfortunate, it was necessary for its global environmental benefits. One was a then head of a Cambridge college. It was a useful reminder that academic intelligence is no guarantee of moral groundedness.

The reprehensible policy has backfired, creating a dearth of potential employees and support for millions who are soon to retire. Other economic consequences included bride-price scams.

The lack of women in rural China resurrected the old, feudal practice of a bride price, or chai li. In the ’90s, chai li prices shot up to the point where it was the equivalent of a decade’s worth of farming income. If a man wanted to marry someone, his whole family had to beg and borrow from all the relatives. And that created a whole scam market.

One villager I met had been introduced to a girl from a different province. He married her and then other men in the village asked her to introduce some other brides to the community. So she introduced some of her friends. Everybody got married and thought it was all going to be good. But a month after the bride price had been paid, all these brides just disappeared.

However, it looks like the end of the one-child policy will not reverse the unintended consequences. Today’s lifestyle choices, even in China, make the no-child option much more appealing.

This transformation makes reversing the one-child policy largely moot, Jones says. Indeed a 2013 easing of restrictions on family size in certain circumstances elicited far fewer takers than expected. Barely 12 percent of eligible families even applied.

One critical problem is the high cost of real estate, particularly in China’s most important cities, which makes it difficult for young couples to attain the space to house a larger family, let alone leave them sufficient financial resources to raise the children. China’s main cities have suffered arguably the world’s most rapid growth of property prices relative to income. Last year, The Economist estimated house price to income ratios of nearly 20 in Shenzhen 17 in Hong Kong and over 15 in Beijing, between 50% and 100% higher than ultra-expensive Western places like San Francisco, Vancouver or Sydney.

This explains in part why prosperous cities like Shanghai and Beijing, now have among the lowest fertility rates ever recorded — down near 0.7 per woman, or one-third the replacement rate. If the experience of densification and high prices spread to other Chinese cities, officials may be lucky if couples even bother to have one child.

Condom manufacturers are the hardest hit by the change.


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