Will China Change Its One-Child Policy?

Will China Change Its One-Child Policy?
A young girl in a park at the start of the cherry blossom season in Beijing
Photograph by Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images

China’s provocative newsweekly magazine Caijing features on its March 11 cover a photograph of a young woman cradling two small children. The cover text asks: “Population-Control Policy, Stay or Go?”

Discussion of the arguments for changing China’s controversial one-child policy, and possibilities for that happening, has been heating up in Beijing in recent years. In addition to human rights concerns (gruesome photos of a 23-year-old woman forced to abort a 7-month-old fetus last year were posted online by her husband and aroused public ire), there’s the stark demographic logic: Fewer babies mean fewer workers to support a population with an increasing proportion of elderly people, and little in the way of a social safety net.

Since the one-child policy was enacted three decades ago, the number of children born to the average Chinese family has dropped well below the generational “replacement level” of 2.1 children (two children to replace two parents). Meanwhile the average lifespan has continued to climb, transforming China into a rapidly aging society. By 2050, one in three people in China is expected to be age 60 or over. By some estimates, the total size of the labor force has already peaked, diminishing China’s competitive advantage as the world’s low-cost factory floor.

Those sounding alarm bells range from demographers to entrepreneurs, including James Liang, the founder of China’s leading budget travel service, Ctrip.com. Now a professor at the Stanford School of Business and Peking University, Liang warns that a society shrinking its cohort of young people diminishes its pool of likely entrepreneurs and loses its ability to innovate.

“If China maintains its current total average fertility rate, its demographic structure diagram by 2040 will be nearly the replica of that of Japan today,” Liang wrote last year in Caixin magazine. “The series of issues that Japanese society is facing today”—from rising health-care costs to lack of entrepreneurial mojo—“are likely to befall” China.

What has now reelectrified the debate, and given hope to the journalists at Caijing, is that the past two weeks of top-level political meetings in Beijing have heralded various significant bureaucratic reshufflings. Among them, China’s leadership announced that the Ministry of Health and the National Population and Family Planning Commission, which oversees implementation of the one-child policy, will merge. This has been widely interpreted as demoting the latter’s authority.

When asked point-blank what to expect next, the deputy head of China’s State Commission Office for Public Sector Reform told reporters not to anticipate immediate policy changes. Yet as Wang Feng, a sociologist and demography expert at the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, points out in an e-mail interview, that rhetoric may be “purely political.” “The government wants to change but does not want to see total chaos,” he writes. “Insisting no change in policy [is forthcoming] is just lip service for now.”

Wang, however, believes change won’t be long in coming. “As much as the government would like to see a gradual process, the collapse of the policy will be swift,” he predicts. “This is so largely for two reasons: People in the bureaucratic organization of implementing the one-child policy all can see the writing on the wall and have to worry about their career and future, and the cost of implementing any transitional measure [such as the costs of tracking, identifying, and exempting more couples from the policy] would be prohibitive if not impossible with China’s migrating population and the unpopularity of the policy.”

Wang recently co-authored an academic paper (pdf) with fellow demographers Cai Yong of the University of North Carolina Population Center and Gu Baochang of Renmin University, entitled “How Will History Judge China’s One-Child Policy?” Their answer: “The one-child policy will be added to the other deadly errors in recent Chinese history, including the famine in 1959–61 caused largely by the industrialization and collectivization campaigns of the late 1950s, and the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s. While those grave mistakes both cost tens of millions of lives, the harms done were relatively short-lived and were corrected quickly afterward. The one-child policy, in contrast, will surpass them in impact by its role in creating a society with a seriously undermined family and kin structure, and a whole generation of future elderly and their children whose well-being will be seriously jeopardized.”

If and when China’s one-child policy is lifted, fertility is unlikely to spring back to the levels of the era before it was implemented. It’s not just policy that’s suppressing the birthrate. Across East Asia, couples today have been choosing to have fewer children for a variety of personal and economic reasons (greater educational attainment and delayed marriage, higher costs of living, etc.). Across the region, the number of children born to each woman has dropped from an average of 5.3 children in the 1960s to 1.6 today. Japan, Singapore, Korea, and Taiwan are all aging societies. And with rising expenses and the heavy burden of mortgages, many women I’ve spoken to in Beijing and other large Chinese cities wonder if they can afford to raise more than one child.

A November 2012 report from Unicef (pdf) predicts that the absolute number of children under age 18 will decline in East Asia and South Asia through 2050. Children made up 41 percent of the world’s population in 1980 but are projected to account for 25 percent by 2050.

This is what worries Wang, the demographer. “More couples with two children can help,” he says, “but in total numbers, it is not going to do much to China’s demographic future.”

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