Melanie McDonagh: Soon there will be brothers and sisters again in China

Related Topics

China – at least, its biggest commercial city – is to modify its one-child policy. The authorities in Shanghai have declared that "eligible couples" – viz, two only-children – will be allowed, indeed, encouraged, to have a second child.

Just don't run away with the idea that this is an outbreak of liberal, pro-choice individualism on the part of the authorities. As Xie Linli, the director of the Shanghai Population and Family Planning Commission, said: "We advocate eligible couples to have two kids because it can help to reduce the proportion of the ageing people and alleviate a workforce shortage in the future."

Mmm. So the obvious downside of the one-child policy has only just occurred to them? Population growth is a bit like a pyramid selling scheme: unless you've got income coming in at the bottom, you can't continue paying out to those at the top.

Regardless of its obvious economic advantages – and the proportion of over-60s in Shanghai, now more than a fifth, will rise to a third by 2020 – it's hard to think of a measure that will do more, at a stroke, to increase the sum of human happiness, apart from letting people decide the size of their families for themselves. And that's something the Chinese have not been allowed to do for decades: the opposite of the one-child policy was Mao's previous insistence that the Chinese should have large families. The upshot is, there'll be more people who know what the words sister and brother mean in a human, not linguistic, sense. There'll be Chinese in a generation's time who will know what it is to have an aunt or uncle; cousins, even.

This is not to say that I don't see the advantages of only children. I and half the population of China have that much in common. Being an only child means that your place in the universe is secure. You don't have any of the tiresome competition for attention. There's no squabbling about the pecking order, or inheritance. You are, in your own family at least, the Little Emperor.

Spoilt, I grant you, and occasionally lonely, but with the internal self-sufficiency that comes from having to amuse yourself quite a lot of the time. As Wilkie Collins put it, in his novel, No Name: "Miss Marrable was that hardest of all born tyrants – an only child. She had never granted a constitutional privilege to her oppressed father and mother, since the time when she cut her first tooth."

From the parents' point of view, the advantages are equivocal, apart from the purely selfish circumstance that you have more of your own money. Your hold on posterity is fragile. One of the unbearable implications of last year's Chinese earthquake was that so many of the casualties – perhaps 68,000 – would have been only children. A society where the old exceed the young is unbalanced.

In Confucian terms, the individual's pre-eminent obligations are to parents, grandparents and ancestors. Now we have something like descendant worship.

The partial reversal of the one-child policy – which was enforced by compulsory abortions and involuntary sterilisations – will have an environmental impact on the rest of us. But we should give those environmentalists who rejoice in draconian population policies for other people very short shrift.

I've come across any number of supposedly liberal academics who, sotto voce, will tell you of the immense benefits of China's one-child policy. Well, they'll just have to come to terms with this advance in freedom. For anyone who cares at all about human liberty, it's something we should celebrate.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

Read Next

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage

If I were Prime Minister: I would create a government that actually reflects its people

Kaliya Franklin
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower