China Is Preparing to 'Fine-Tune' Its One-Child Policy

Photograph by Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Among the many reform hopes bandied about in the runup to China’s Third Plenum, one was that Beijing would move decisively toward abandoning its long-outdated one-child policy. So far there’s no evidence that has happened. Indeed, just one day before the party confab closed on Nov. 12, a Chinese official came out apparently cautioning those who expect rapid progress. China plans to “fine-tune” its 30-year-old one-child policy, according to National Health and Family Planning Commission spokesman Mao Chun’an. Yet “any step taken must serve to maintain a low birth rate while satisfying individual families’ desire to have more children,” Mao said on Nov. 11, reported the China Daily.

If the policy had never been adopted, China today might have a population of 1.7 billion to 1.8 billion, and “per capita ownership of resources, including arable land, grain, forests, drinking water, and energy, would be 20 percent less than what it is today,” estimated Mao, the Xinhua News Agency reported. (China currently has about 1.4 billion people.)

“China will continue to uphold the family planning policy as a basic national policy, given that its huge population places a heavy strain on economic and social development, resources, and the environment in the long run,” the China Daily reported Mao as saying.

Trouble is, there’s a growing consensus that the policy itself is putting a heavy strain on China’s economic development. More specifically, it has saddled the country with a host of unintended problems, including an aging population, a shrinking workforce, a skewed sex ratio, and an often disgruntled populace that doesn’t like paying stiff penalties for additional children.

Even China’s desire to create a more innovative and entrepreneurial economy may be complicated by the continuing enforcement of the policy. The young workforce that typically drives new ideas in an economy is becoming an even smaller proportion of the overall Chinese population, argues entrepreneur James Liang, chairman of online tourism company and author of Too Many People in China?

“In pretty much every country, developing and developed, you see that the older the age of the workforce, the lower the overall entrepreneurship,” Liang said in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek last year, citing Japan as the classic example.

How might the policy be fine-tuned? Currently, two parents that both come from single-child families are allowed to have more than one child. One possibility that has been discussed is to allow more than one child in a family if just one of the parents was a single child. Today, Chinese families average 1.6 children, well below the 2.1 level that’s considered the replacement rate, or what’s necessary to avoid a shrinking population.

It may be too late, though. Much like in other countries that have seen incomes rise, the majority of Chinese say they prefer smaller families. That’s what a recent study in Jiangsu province concluded, too: Already 70 percent of rural families favor having just one child, found a team led by Gu Baochang, a demographer at Renmin University of China in Beijing. “Family planning policy is no longer the key factor determining people’s reproduction choices,” said Gu, reported the China Daily.

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