China is dismantling the last reminder of Malthusian millennialism, its one-child policy. Does any memento of that era remain, when humanity feared that it might eat itself out of hearth and home unless it cut back on breeding? Perhaps the transistor radio was the second-last to go, that marvel of 20th century technology, which was used to lure hapless Indians into vasectomy tents. The last survivor of that era was the one-child norm, which was conceptualised in 1978, in the heyday of the transistor radio, at the end of Chairman Mao’s reign. Now, even that is gone.
Actually, though, the one-child norm was an emotive issue only outside China. A Pew survey in 2008 found that three out of four citizens supported the measure, which had been conceptualised to fend off economic and ecological disaster. In that period, only one-third of the population had their families planned strictly by the rule. Ever since 1987, when provincial officials were given the power to interpret the rule, exemptions have been offered on multiple counts, including the health and developmental issues of offspring. Ethnic minorities and rural families were cut some slack. Besides, a couple who were themselves single children were automatically allowed two children.
Children born overseas did not count, and it was not unknown for families to travel in order to have children, who would naturally become citizens of their birth countries. But the rich just stayed home, had children and paid the price to the government, in the form of a maintenance fee. And modern in-vitro fertilisation techniques have sent the multiple birth rate surging, which totally hacks the system.
Facing a stacked deck, China has reverted to the two-child norm that was encouraged through the 1970s. It needs new blood to deal with a greying population, 30 per cent of which is over 50. With its prosperity and salience in the world economy, it does not have to fear Malthusian dystopias any more. Containing the cost of rapid economic growth has become a more immediate concern, and China has just fought off the image of a nation doomed by an air quality crisis. The removal of a restrictive population law is most welcome. It should be history, just like the more bizarre projects of the Mao era, like harvesting pots and pans to make steel, and the Kill a Sparrow Campaign to erase crop pests, which disturbed the ecological balance and actually caused pest outbreaks.