Is China’s One-Child Policy Irrelevant Now?


When Jane Austen wrote “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” it was the time of the landed gentry in the days of the Regency era. In China today, though, Austen’s words resonate for many. For China in 2015 is home to more than a few single men in possession of a good fortune, but not so many women. At least not in the rural areas.

My hometown is village of 5,000 in Hebei province. During a recent visit, I took the opportunity to catch up with my old elementary school teachers. The textbooks, teacher salaries, and school facilities had all changed, but what astonished me was the number of pupils. When I was in school, there were two parallel classes in each grade with at least 30 to 50 pupils in each class. And there were six grades in total. Now, there is but one class for each grade, with at most 30 pupils, only five or six of whom are girls.

As I chatted with my old teachers, they confirmed what was readily apparent: There are fewer pupils, fewer of whom are girls. According to my teachers, this situation was rather common, at least outside the city.

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What will that mean a couple of decades from now? Perhaps the story of my cousin can offer some insight. He was born in 1991, at a time when the one child policy was arguably at is strictest. As the third child of his family (he has two older sisters), my uncle paid a handsome fine to keep him, while my aunt played several games of hide and seek with officials from the local family planning office. My cousin recently became engaged, to a great deal of relief. It did not occur to me how lucky he felt until my uncle told me there were at least 30 young men in my village who are in their twenties and are looking for a marriage partner. Thanks to China’s economic development, these young men have much to offer, but the search is difficult.

Why is it so hard for them to find a wife? The answer is really quite simple.

The only child policy has changed the population structure dramatically. According  to the latest census, the ratio of men and women under 19 years old nationwide is 115:100. In China’s cities there are 9.30 million more men than women under 19 years old, and in rural areas, there are 12.89 million more men. Does this promise a more popular Bachelor’s Day every November 11th? Some estimate that from 2013, China will have an additional 1.2 million unmarried male adults each year.

Another reason why the number of rural bachelors is increasing has something to do with the urbanization process. Millions of rural residents have migrated to China’s cities, the majority of them young men and women. However, working in cities tends to lead to different outcomes. Young men tend to go back to their rural hometowns after a period of time, while young women often get the chance to find themselves a Mr. Right and settle down in the city. This results in an outflow of young women from rural areas, while the population of young men remains more or less the same. Although there is unquestionably a gender imbalance in the cities, the arrival of young women from rural areas offers some hope for young urban men that their rural counterparts lack.

Of course, young women can’t be criticized for choosing a better life in the cities. Personal liberty is a basic human right. Nor is it fair to blame young rural men. The problem of course is the one-child policy.

While many experts have focused on the economic implications of the one child policy, the risk of social unrest also has to be taken into account. For China appears to be looking at a future in which young, passionate, active men are deeply dissatisfied with their life and prospects. If the government thinks the population issue is a difficult challenge today, give it another decade.

Fortunately, the government is beginning to act, with a new policy that allows couples to have a second child after marriage, provided one parent was an only child. Unfortunately, early indications are that this loosening of the policy is not having the desired effect, and it may not be long before the government drops the proviso. According to the National Health and Family Planning Commission,  after a year of implementation, the results were well short of the expected 2 million births. By August, 2014, of 11 million qualifying couples, only 700,000 applied to have a second child, and only 620,000 were approved, well short of expectations.

The policy may have changed, and that is a good step, but it is appears that reproduction preferences may also have shifted, and for China’s demographic future it may be a case of too little, too late.

Ma Junjie is a project researcher at Unirule Institute of Economics, a private think-tank renowned for institutional economics. He writes on various topics, ranging from international politics, trade, climate change and emissions trading scheme, to China’s reforms and culture.

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