Steinberg: Chinese cruelties cut closer to home

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China’s one-child left it with an aging population and shrinking workforce, heightening the challenges of slowing growth. | Getty Images

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Being a Democrat, I know the government sometimes does good things.

In Illinois, for example, the state supports programs for residents with disabilities, services for the blind, transportation for those with limited mobility.

Or did, before the economic crunch prompted our leaders to push those people over the side of our foundering ship of state. You can’t blame Bruce Rauner for this; Pat Quinn started peeling the fingers of the needy off the gunwales. Rauner just picked up where Quinn left off, and he seems to relish the process.

Which I suppose points to the true essence of government, like every human activity: some good (helping the disadvantaged) and some bad (deep-sixing the needy).

Though sometimes governments do things that are purely bad.

For instance, China. In the 1970s, panic over population growth — we thought we’d all be shuffling through dense cities crawling with people — inspired Chinese leaders to require that couples bear only one child. That grotesque intrusion into the intimate lives of their citizens was finally reversed last week, and so the news was filled with stories of the decades of horror that the rule imposed — compulsory sterilizations and forced abortions, infanticide — preference for sons prompted couples, particularly in the countryside, to murder their infant daughters. Life magazine ran a haunting photograph of a baby left in a forest. Some American tourists had found the baby and took her to a hospital, which returned the infant to the woods to die.


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That kind of awfulness overshadowed two very significant aspects of the Chinese policy that deserve attention.

First, it didn’t work. The birth rate in China in 1970, before the One Couple/One Child rule was begun, was 33 births per 1,000 population.

By 1998, China’s birth rate had fallen to 15 births per thousand, cutting its birth rate by more than half.

Which would be impressive, except other countries, without the draconian One Child rule, had nearly the same result or more. South Korea’s birth rate was 31 per 1,000 in 1970; in 1998 it was 14 per 1,000.

In Thailand the change was even greater: 37 per 1,000 in 1970, 16 per 1,000 in 1998.

What happened? Birth rates fell everywhere, no coercion necessary, because the world urbanized and grew in affluence; couples living in cramped city apartments don’t want as many kids as couples trying to run a subsistence farm. People did voluntarily what the Chinese government was trying to force them to do.

Millions of second-born Chinese — I’ve seen estimates around 12 million — entered the world in rightless limbo and became shadow people, the Chinese version of illegal immigrants, without official documentation because they weren’t supposed to be born and thus unable to go to school or get medical care. I used to savor a little-known coincidence of the two countries: the United States and China are nearly the same size geographically, the U.S. at 3.8 million square miles, China at 3.7 million square miles. Add to that a second eerie coincidence, one that has more real world significance: Both nations have about 12 million residents living in permanent limbo, “but they’re illegal!” the identical empty cry of those in both nations who would rationalize the injustice.

Which leads to the second point about the one-child policy: It was inspired by economic fear. The Chinese wanted their country to grow, and worried overcrowding would sap their success. They didn’t realize that trying to avoid one problem — too many people — would create a worse one: too few young people supporting a graying population.

Economic fear is also driving policy in Illinois now. The disadvantaged are given the heave-ho, eroding the humanitarian atmosphere of the state, with the middle class’ turn next, right now being seized by the back of the pants by Gov. Rauner for the tip over the side in his quest to destroy public unions. Even if he’s successful — not a safe bet by any means — his actions, like the Chinese One Child policy, would instill much suffering while not creating an economic boon. Sure, it might mean more jobs, but those jobs would be worse.

So we go from being a state with good jobs struggling to pay its bills to a state struggling less but with no middle class. Government policy prompted by economic desperation tends to fall hard upon regular people, whether China’s One Child policy, or Mayor Richard Daley selling the parking meters, or Rauner’s demand that unions be gutted as his ransom for agreeing to a budget.

People will be hurt, and it won’t end up helping anyway. A shame you have to be a Democrats to see it.

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