Studying introductory Mandarin at a college in the backwoods of Maine was disorienting enough. But I almost abandoned my linguistic expedition when I turned to the textbook chapter dedicated to all things family. "Cousin" was the deceptively simple heading on the page. Then came a bewildering array of words of which I offer a sampling: father's brother's son who's older than you (tangge), father's brother's daughter who's younger than you (tangmei), mother's sister's son who's younger than you (biaodi), mother's sister's daughter who's older than you (biaojie). Even amid a Maine winter, my brain began to overheat.
My 1980s-era textbook, though, was somewhat out of date. Thirty years ago this September, China began seriously pruning family trees of cousins and simplifying kinship taxonomy in the process through the mandatory enforcement of its so-called one-child policy (a misnomer because, among others, rural families and ethnic minorities are allowed to have more than a single kid). By becoming the only country in the world to make compulsory family planning a pillar of national identity, China hoped to prevent a Malthusian nightmare. Chinese authorities believe they succeeded: they claim that the nation's massive social-engineering project has spared the planet 400 million people.
Given China's extraordinary economic emergence over the same period, it's easy to assume a neat link between the single-child policy and double-digit growth rates. This month, the lead news on the website of the National Population and Family Planning Commission was not demographic but economic, an upward revising of last year's GDP growth to 9.1%. Surely fewer mouths to feed means more money for education, science and Louis Vuitton bags. Even as foreigners decry the forced abortions, sterilizations and other abuses committed by zealous family-planning officials, an uneasy thought emerges: maybe China's rulers had it right all along.
The reality is rather more complicated. Mao Zedong initially encouraged the Chinese to procreate amply, declaring, "Of all the things in the world, people are the most precious." The People's Republic soon boasted a quarter of the world's population crammed into a territory with less than 15% arable soil. In the 1970s central planners worried about how to fill all those rice bowls. A voluntary incentive program to encourage smaller families led to a huge drop in Chinese fertility rates, from an average of 5.9 births per woman to 2.9. This was before the one-child policy was even implemented.
Enforced family planning did empty maternity wards further. With a current population of 1.3 billion people, China now boasts fertility rates of around 1.6 births per woman, well below the 2.1 replacement rate at which a population is maintained. But the country is also saddled with one of the planet's worst gender imbalances, largely a result of women aborting female fetuses due to a traditional preference for male offspring. Other countries such as India and South Korea also have skewed sex ratios, but the pressure to bear a son is all the greater in China precisely because many families are limited to just one child. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that by 2020 there will be at least 24 million "bare branches" men destined to stay single because there are not enough wives to go around. As more of those boys become bachelors, China risks all sorts of social plagues from criminal gangs to greater trafficking in women.
The other danger is that China will grow gray before it is rich enough to cope. Reducing population growth has meant that per capita GDP rates have zoomed upward. But factories are now facing shortages of young, skilled labor. By 2050, one-third of Chinese will be elderly. Despite its communist heritage, the People's Republic has little in the way of a national social-security system. Will a generation of "little emperors" be willing or able to support their parents and grandparents?
If the rest of the developing world is any guide, economic development is the best form of birth control. Across East Asia, family sizes have contracted as income levels have risen. That begs the question of whether China really needed the government to invade the nation's bedrooms. In today's urban China, where fertility rates have dipped so low as to convince local officials to actually encourage procreation, many couples are still choosing a single child. Their preference can be partly explained by 30 years of official propaganda. But it's also a choice made the world over by yuppies who don't want their freedom and finances compromised by the pitter-patter of too many little feet. If anyone's still using my old Mandarin textbook, it's probably safe to skip that page with the dizzying array of cousins.