Biden and the One Child Policy: In defence of the Veep

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is under fire from the usual sources over this comment he made to students at Sichuan University:

Your policy has been one which I fully understand — I’m not second-guessing — of one child per family. The result being that you’re in a position where one wage earner will be taking care of four retired people. Not sustainable.

The uproar from the Republicans was expected, I suppose. Mitt Romney, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, had this to say:

Vice President Biden’s acquiescence to such a policy should shock the conscience of every American. Instead of condoning the policy, Vice President Biden should have condemned it in the strongest possible terms. There can be no defence of a government that engages in compulsory sterilization and forced abortions in the name of population control.

The headlines got Biden in trouble, and since the VP has a history of making stupid comments, most of the media was happy to play along. One notable exception was ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper, whose blog post on this topic is quite well done, explaining the full context of Biden’s remarks.

That context was entitlements and social safety net spending. Biden explained that the U.S. has some challenges in this area with its ageing population. In bringing up the One Child Policy, Biden was drawing a parallel to China’s own demographic problems. Perfectly understandable.

Biden said that he understood and wasn’t “second-guessing” the One Child Policy. The latter part of that sentence is what got him in trouble with critics.

Two points. First, and I realise that this may sound a bit naive, but Biden was being polite on a diplomatic trip. He wasn’t there to slam China about population control (it wasn’t even a topic of discussion), and this was a way to put that issue aside.

Second, there’s a difference between the general One Child Policy and its specific implementation. Note that Romney couched his remarks in terms of “compulsory sterilization and forced abortions.” But Biden wasn’t condoning those particular activities. He was saying that he understood the government’s reasons for population control.

Remember why the law was passed in the first place. China believed that its goals pertaining to economic development and standard of living would be difficult, if not impossible, given population growth. A lot of economists supported that contention. Whether or not, and to what extent, the One Child Policy has been responsible for China’s meteoric economic rise in the past few decades is beside the point. The legislative intent behind the policy is well known (and laudable, in my opinion), and this is what Biden was talking about.

Biden has since responded to his critics with this language, which I think actually goes a bit too far:

The Obama administration strongly opposes all aspects of China’s coercive birth limitation policies, including forced abortion and sterilization. The vice president believes such practices are repugnant. [my emphasis]

They should have limited their remarks to “forced abortion and sterilization” or “coercive aspects of the policy.” The goal of one child per family doesn’t seem so repugnant to me, and surely not all means of implementation are objectionable. The problem comes with some of the tough coercive measures which, by the way, the Central Government has been cracking down on in recent years. Most of the horror stories you read about relate to actions taken by local officials.

I don’t know for sure whether this is Biden’s position. As a fellow Democrat, I hope that he would be pro-economic development, anti-poverty and pro-birth control.

I definitely know what the Jesus First Republican Party position is, because many of them believe that anything that stops a woman from having lots o’ tots is contrary to God’s law. Every time someone uses a condom, apparently the baby Jesus weeps.

Perhaps I’m splitting hairs here, but I think Biden is getting a raw deal. Saying that he understood China’s desire to keep its population under control is not a gaffe or misstatement.

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