Chinese reformers have long been warning that the one-child policy no longer makes sense. The baby ban has already ensured that it will be harder for China to cope with its ageing crisis as life-expectancy nears Western levels. The share of the population aged over 60 will jump from 13 per cent to 34 per cent in 30 years.
China's child control policy dates back to the "New Population Theory" of 1957, when Communist Party leaders feared that the country would run out of food. There were in fact famines during Mao Tse-tung's Great Leap Forward, but entirely because of planning blunders. The policy hardened into a one-child limit in the 1970s, with some exemptions for ethnic groups or for farmers if the first baby was a girl. There have since been 336 million abortions and 222 million sterilisations, often badly executed in poor regions.
The ratio of baby boys to girls is 1.17, creating a surfeit of 30 million bachelors. And this has powerful side effects: young men have to save up to buy a flat to boost their chances of finding a wife, and this is fuelling both a savings glut and a property bubble. The urban middle classes already flout the policy en masse, paying a "social compensation fee" of pounds 900 for an illegal child. This generated 1.8 billion pounds of revenue for local governments last year and has become a vested interest, like parking fees for British local councils. Poorer women who cannot afford the fine risk forced abortions if they have a second child. This has led to film footage of young mothers lying beside fully formed dead babies. These gruesome scenes have caused uproar on the internet in China.
The policy has become a political liability. Beijing's reformers have already won changes that allow families to have a second child if both parents are single children. This will now be extended to families where just one parent is a single child. But is it a case of too little too late? China's workforce shrank by three million last year, marking a dramatic rupture for Chinese society and the country's economic growth model. The International Monetary Fund says the numbers in work will now go into "precipitous decline" and that there will be a labour shortage of 140 million by 2030, the greatest job crunch ever seen. Meanwhile, fertility rates have fallen, confirming an East Asian phenomenon. In Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan the rate has fallen to 1.2 as they become richer, far below the 2.0 level needed to keep the population on an even keel.
In Shanghai it has fallen to 1.08, the lowest in the world. This has nothing to do with the one-child policy. A recent experiment in Hebei found that laxer controls made no difference to the birth rate. So even if the reforms are pushed through fast, they will have no impact on the work force for almost 20 years. Demographers say it may take half a century to bring the population structure back into balance. The risk for China is that it will become the first country to grow old before it is rich.