It has been a long time since Liu Jinghu and his wife enjoyed a weekend to themselves. Saturdays and Sundays in smoggy Beijing are dedicated to their only child, 2-year-old son Xiaojing: there are early-childhood exercise classes, singing sessions with other families and Lego-building sprees in a living room scattered with toys. Looming in their minds is the specter of expensive tutoring to get their toddler into a good school and, further into the future, the pressure to buy their son an apartment so he can persuade a woman to marry him. That property burden could cost Liu, a software-development manager, and his wife, a human-resources specialist, two decades' worth of salary. Such are the costs of raising a kid today in middle-class China.
Liu and his wife were themselves only children in a nation teeming with singletons because of China's one-child policy, which was unveiled in 1979 as a quick fix for a poor, populous society. The couple's lack of siblings means they are legally allowed to have two children. But Liu says he doesn't have the time, money or mental strength for another kid. "We don't want to spend our lives working just [for our child]," he says. "We want more from life than that."
The world's most populous nation, 1.35 billion strong, will soon have too few people--or, rather, too few of the right kind of people. That's because more than three decades of government-mandated family planning, often called the one-child policy, have succeeded beyond the architects' grandest dreams. Add to that the natural inclination of richer, more educated people like Liu and his wife to limit their family size, and China's population growth is projected to taper off in 15 years.
That would leave the People's Republic with a distorted population: too few youths, too few women and too many elderly. Writing in the Population and Development Review, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Population Council in New York City, three top Chinese demographers predict that "the one-child policy will be added to the other deadly errors in recent Chinese history," alongside the turbulent 1966--76 Cultural Revolution and a devastating man-made famine in 1959--61. "While those grave mistakes both cost tens of millions of lives, the harms done were relatively short-lived and were corrected quickly afterward. The one-child policy, in contrast, will surpass them in impact."
Ironically, the one-child policy now threatens to undermine the very economic success it helped spawn. The family-planning program, coupled with market reforms launched around the same time, is credited with catalyzing China's modern transformation. With fewer bellies to feed, the government turned a hand-to-mouth society into the world's second largest economy. Although many families, especially those in the countryside, are exempted from the one-child maximum, Chinese women bear, on average, about 1.5 children, compared with about 6 in the late 1960s. (For a nation to maintain its population, it needs a total fertility rate of at least 2.1 babies per woman.) By 2030, China's population is expected to peak at just short of 1.4 billion and then begin a long decline.