No other animal is as symbolic of the fight for conservation as the giant panda. Since a dangerous flirtation with extinction, panda populations have been nursed back to the brink by watchful conservationists.
This approach might work for panda populations, but it will not work for China at-large. Government attempts to micromanage human populations are distasteful at best and loathsome at worst.
In 1979 the Chinese central government introduced its now-infamous “one-child policy” in an effort to prevent what it thought would become a catastrophic population crisis. But the policy had just the opposite effect — it has precipitated one.
Fifty years ago a Chinese woman could expect to give birth to more than six children in her lifetime. For a country of 715 million people this kind of population growth would have been unsustainable; alas even a continent-sized country’s resources are not unlimited. So, government officials imposed a draconian set of regulations that prohibited almost all women from having more than one child. Basic qualms about personal liberty aside, the consequences were appalling: women were sterilized, and fetuses were aborted by force.
Yet the one-child policy, misguided as it was for moral reasons, was unwarranted for factual ones. Government intervention has depressed the total fertility rate well below the replacement rate needed for a stable population, 2.1, to an anemic 1.6.
The central and provincial governments are now grasping at straws, encouraging couples to have more children. In 2013 the one-child policy was relaxed, and it was abolished altogether in 2015. Today most couples can have no more than two children. Rumors run rampant that family-planning rules will be done away with altogether, as the provincial government of Shaanxi called for in July.
But the various apparatus of the Chinese government are still deeply involved in family-planning policy. The People’s Daily, a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, published an op-ed titled “Giving is an issue for both the family and state,” in which it cautioned that “the impact of low birth rates on the economy and society has begun to show.” In Liaoning province, officials proposed in July new benefits for families including tax breaks, housing subsidies and education stipends.
It would be a mistake to miss the bamboo forest for the trees; not all incentivization has been positive. After Jiangxi province officials restricted access to abortion in June, women more than 14 weeks pregnant must receive approval from three doctors. Officials claim that the new policy helps prevent selective abortions that favor boys — one of those hideous consequences of the one-child policy — but critics are concerned that the new rule exists to make abortion harder to access for all women.
Chinese officials have experience with pouring monumental sums of money into propping up populations. As panda populations were poached to dangerously low levels, conservationists took desperate measures to breed them. Given captive pandas’ curiously low libido, some scientists turned to fantastical ideas: They showed pandas videos of other pandas mating, and injected male pandas with Viagra to boost sex drive. They didn’t work. But conservationists have since found an effective solution: wait. Female pandas ovulate only once a year for only a few days. During those days pandas are more susceptible to anthropogenically encouraged mating or artificial insemination. For the rest of the year, conservationists can do little but keep pandas safe and healthy.
Government mandarins can learn from this experience. Restricting access to family planning healthcare seems nefarious if not hopeless; incentivizing couples to have children may pass moral muster but can come at huge fiscal cost. The cost seems more pronounced because economists know that the kind of demographic calamity predicted in the 1970s is self-correcting. Demographers know that growth in wealth and drops in the fertility rate go hand in hand.
Micromanaging bureaucrats might not be put at ease. After all the looming crisis is one of withering fertility rates, not burgeoning ones. Officials worry that the shrinking young generations will not be able to support their parents and grandparents through a public social safety net or otherwise. Still, little can be done save incentivize and hope family attitudes change.
Pandas once flourished in China, roaming vast bamboo forests. Even before the industrialization that destroyed swathes of natural habitat, populations faltered under the pressure of poachers. Instead of spending huge amounts of money to conserve the few pandas alive today, it would’ve been easier to protect them in the first place. The same is true of family planning; it is likely that China would not be facing its current conundrum had the one-child policy never been instituted. When planning their next moves, Chinese policymakers would be wise to remember that.
Joshua Levy is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Animal Kingdom appears online every other Friday.