China Wrestles with the Effects of the One-Child Policy


According to the New York Times, there is further pressure on the Chinese Government to modify or even abandon
its one-child policy as resulting economic and social problems are becoming
more evident.  It is easy to understand
why these problems have been ignored or masked until now as originally the one-child
policy and the consequent drop in China’s fertility was an economic advantage:

“At first, China’s drop in fertility worked largely in its
favor. The nation’s share of dependents — children and elderly — fell
significantly in comparison to working-age citizens. “China entered an amazing
demographic sweet spot,” said Michael Pettis, a Peking University professor and
economist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. By some estimates,
the growth in the percentage of workers over nonworkers accounted for 15
percent to 25 percent of China’s economic growth between 1980 and 2000.”

However, this is no longer the case:

economists contend that China’s low birthrate, once an economic advantage, is
now destined to clip the nation’s economic growth….

Now the
size of the work force is leveling off. Demographers say it will begin to
shrink within just five years, albeit slowly at first.”

While the
size of the workforce is expected to start to shrink, the number of elderly
dependents is rising:

ranks of the elderly are swelling so fast that by 2040, projections show that
the median age of Chinese will be higher than that of Americans, but Chinese
will enjoy just one-third of the per capita income, adjusted for the cost of
living. Experts say that will make China the first major country to grow old
before it is fully economically developed…

Mr. Wang
[head of the Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, a branch of the
Washington-based Brookings Institution] said that China already had 14 percent
fewer people in their 20s compared with a decade ago. In the next 20 years, he
said, their numbers will dwindle an additional 17 percent, while the share of
China’s population that is 65 and older is projected to double to 16 percent.
By 2050, nearly one in four Chinese will be elderly, according to United
Nations projections.”

Aside from
these economic issues, there are also the social problems that arise from
decades of state interference in the family unit:

are also dismayed by the gender imbalance that has followed the one-child
policy. When it was enacted, China was close to the birth-ratio standard for
most societies: 103 to 107 boys for every 100 girls. Twenty-five years later,
119 Chinese boys were born for every 100 girls, one of the world’s most skewed
sex ratios, according to a 2009 study by The British Medical Journal. In 2005,
China had 32 million more males under age 20 than females, a disparity that
researchers say will only worsen over the next two decades and could lead to
social instability.”

With these
problems in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that there have been some noises
from the Chinese Government that the policy will be relaxed.  The Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told the
national legislature in March that China would “progressively improve the basic
state policy on family planning”.  However,
any relaxing of the policy may be a case of bolting the barn door after the
(in)fertile horse has bolted.  At the
moment there are at least 22 exemptions to the one-child policy and it is
calculated that only 63 per cent of Chinese couples are limited to one
child.  However, there does not seem to
be much difference in birth rates between those within and those outside the
policy’s catchment:

Yicheng, the county in rural Shanxi Province…couples have been exempt from the
one-child policy for a quarter of a century. Under a state experiment that was
deliberately kept secret until a few years ago, couples were allowed to have
two children if they married three years later than the minimum age for the
rest of the country. Initially they were also required to wait six years
between the first and second births.

the county’s population grew roughly on par with the rest of the nation.
“People don’t think they have the money for two children,” said Shi Aixiang, a
preschool director in Yicheng.

The trend
appears to be the same in Jiangsu, a coastal province north of Shanghai.
Researchers interviewed nearly 4,400 women who were eligible to have two
children. Fewer than one-third of the mothers with one child said they either
wanted or might want a second, according to a 2009 study published by the
journal Asian Population Studies.

Shanghai, so many eligible couples have decided against a second child that in
2009, population workers started making home visits to try to change their
minds. Cai Yong, a demographer at the University of North Carolina, said that
Shanghai’s and Beijing’s fertility rates were both estimated at 0.7 per woman —
fewer than one child per couple, and half what many demographers estimate is
the national childbearing rate.”

findings and figures lead to growing concerns that:

one-child culture is now so ingrained among Chinese that the authorities may
not be able to encourage more births even if they try.”

Indeed, according
to Arthur Kroeber of Dragonomics, a Beijing-based economic research firm:

“My view
is they absolutely don’t need it,” Mr. Kroeber said of the one-child policy.
“But I also think that if they abolished it today, it would have no impact.”

Does this article show that a
one-child policy was superfluous because couples would have had fewer children
anyway as China modernised?  Or does it
show that the policy was so successful that it changed cultural perceptions in
China so that even when the policy is removed families will stay small?  Either way, it seems that China is going to
have to face the issues arising out of smaller younger generations. Perhaps this
is something to keep in mind when people start extolling the virtues of state supported
and sponsored small families.





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