Ending the One-Child Policy
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Ending the One-Child Policy


Over 30 years ago, in 1980, China launched its one-child policy. Today, the country’s demographic dividend is spent. Its labor force is set to decline in absolute terms. The old-age dependency ratio (the number of people above the age of 65 for every person of working age) is expected to double over the next two decades, reaching the level of Norway or the Netherlands by 2030. Some observers have put two and two together and argued that the one-child policy has been the reason behind this demographic transition.

But that’s not so.  The sharp decline in China’s fertility rate – from 5.9 in 1960 to1965 to near 1.5 today – would probably have occurred anyway.  After all, other rapidly growing East Asian countries also have fertility rates that have declined just as fast as China’s, such as Korea, Thailand, and even Indonesia (although Indonesia, with a lower per capita income, is behind by a couple of decades). And none of them had a one-child policy.

The reason behind declining fertility rates in most countries is rising incomes and living standards. As these factors rise, health services improve, which in turn reduces infant and child mortality. Couples don’t find it necessary to have many children to help them in their old age.   Higher incomes and more education, especially for young girls, means that women tend to have fewer children later in life. Moreover, children become less important as a safety net in old age as other social security instruments become available. And with higher incomes, education is less a luxury and more a necessity – and the cost of education becomes an important factor in deciding family size.

It’s true that these factors were not predominant in the decision making of most Chinese couples. Their decisions were dictated by the one-child policy. But had the one-child policy not been in place, there’s a strong likelihood that the decision to have fewer children would have been voluntary with exactly the same results – just as it was in Thailand and Korea.

Interestingly, China’s one-child policy wasn’t applied uniformly across the country.  Urban areas were stricter than rural ones, and different provinces had different rules. Minorities were usually exempted. When couples had a child with disabilities, they were allowed to have a second child. Given the preference of most Chinese to have at least one son, those with a daughter were sometimes allowed to have another child (especially in rural areas).

More recently, some provincial governments have relaxed the requirements in a few select areas as a policy experiment. In most, if not all cases, the fertility rate has barely budged. All this suggests that if the one-child policy were to be removed tomorrow, China’s fertility rate would probably not rise appreciably. And even if it did, it would be a one-off increase and would immediately begin to fall again. Indeed, if China were to grant its rural population and urban migrants the same access to social services as urban residents enjoy, the fertility rate is likely to decline even faster.

So removing the one-child policy isn’t likely to have any impact on the overall population of China. The government recognizes this and is beginning to dismantle it, albeit slowly. This slow pace is unfortunate for two reasons. First, parents choosing a second child are prevented from having one on account of the policy, and in some cases may be forced to undergo an abortion.  

As important, the one-child policy is an important factor contributing to China’s “missing women” – there are over 30 million fewer women in China today than would be the case if its gender balance resembled that of other countries.  This has occurred for a number of reasons: sex-selective abortions, infanticide, neglect, or abandonment. Some of this can be attributed to the constraints imposed on families as a result of the one-child policy, and is all the more reason China should accelerate the removal of the one-child policy.

Vikram Nehru is a senior associate in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. An expert on development economics, growth, poverty reduction, debt sustainability, governance, and the performance and prospects of East Asia, his research focuses on the economic, political, and strategic issues confronting Asia, particularly Southeast Asia. This articles was originally published by CEIP here.

November 20, 2012 at 02:49

They’re the means to an end, and their state knows the best, let them do what they choose to, they won’t ask your advice like they didn’t do so when they were adopting it!

Anees Ebrahem
March 12, 2012 at 13:17

Development does lead to decreasing birth rates…but would that development have come as fast had there been no one child policy? Just a thought.

March 11, 2012 at 03:53

Removing the policy would, at best, lead to a modest replacement-ratio of 1:2 (two children for every couple), which is still around 0-1% growth in real terms.

Socioeconomic factors are the biggest pressures.

March 8, 2012 at 17:46

The arguments presented in this analysis seem somewhat flawed. No doubt the policymakers 30 years ago were aware that economic and social development would, in time, lead to a lower, more sustainable fertility rate, but it would have been a very gradual change, as a delayed reflection of increases in standards of living. The One Child Policy, for all its faults, was clearly an attempt to make this happen more quickly, ie to stop China’s population explosion in its tracks. The fact that 25 years later the population peaked at 1.3 billion, and not 1.5 billion or higher, is testament to the resounding success of the policy.

It could also be argued that forcing a lower birth rate on young couples meant that less time and money would be required of the average family to cover the basic cost of child-rearing, freeing up more resources for parents to spend on education, advance their own careers, buy a new bike or car, or whatever. This equates to a general rise in living standards, and, according to the paradigm, reduces the theoretical “demand” for babies that would exist in the absence of the policy. So it is at least partially thanks to the Once Child Policy itself, that we are able to contemplate loosening or repealing it.

It is hard to refute the negative effects of the Policy as mentioned in the article are certainly real problems in the fabric of modern Chinese society, but IMHO it would be misguided to believe that the end result – a couple of hundred million less mouths to feed and corresponding increases in national per capita wealth – could have been achieved simply by waiting.

March 8, 2012 at 15:18

I heard the one child policy is already removed in places like Shanghai or for people with Shanghai family registration.

Just like Shenzen they probably have to phase it in. Although certain areas of China will naturally give lower birth rates without the policy vast areas of it are still rural. And in rural places more children mean more workers for the farm mentality.

China is such a huge country a popular song will be popular throughout the country for 10 years or so. For example certain areas of China might be just getting into Ricky Martin these days.

March 8, 2012 at 11:56

China please do NOT stop the one child policy (I do like kids and I am pro-life, but there is only so much our planet earth can take under system of capitalism with limited resources such as oil,coal, etc already at it’s peak production—-the reason why we are going to have $5 gas price). The author of the article Vikram Nehru is from India and doesnt even understand the significant problem that his country is facing under the burdening population growth like his countrymen yet he continues to oppose the China’s population policy think the world will be multi-polar (history repeatedly tell us that world has never been multi-polar due to limitation of resources and there has always been 1 major global power during a specific century. Currently, if chinese start consuming like us Americans, there will be nothing left for us or the entire world, hence the result will evoke WW3). CHINA PLEASE CONTINUE TO IMPLEMENT THIS ONE CHILD POLICY ALL OVER CHINA EVEN ON MINORITIES TO REDUCE THE POPULATION TO SUSTAINABLE LEVEL FOR ECONOMIC GROWTH WHILE PROVIDING FAR GREATER INCENTIVES TO FAMILIES WITH A FEMLALE CHILD TO REDUCE THE SEX-RATIO.

March 8, 2012 at 07:02

I have to disagree, the human populace is growing exponentially and that won’t stop. Why repeal a policy well have to put back into place in 100 years.

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