China’s One Child Policy

Published on Author granruth

China’s one child policy is perhaps one of its most reputable domestic policies. Recent changes in Beijing have undermined the system once designed to control population growth. The system has received significant criticism recently with accusations of force sterilization and abortions by local officials. With a population of 1 billion, growth is a major concern for the health of the economy and political environment. However, China’s population is aging and the birth rate is decreasing. This poses an issue for the world 2nd largest economy, whose population growth has been all but stagnant over the past 5 years. A demographic crisis could easily emerge if there is not significant replacement to the labor force. This phenomena is starting to be felt countries such as Italy, where aging citizens are depending on a smaller than necessary work force to generate tax proceeds in order to support entitlement programs.  China’s policy reform comes with a wave of modifications to the bureaucracy in an effort to streamline government processes and sustain recent economic growth. While there have been no changes in the law, the government is stripping power from the regulatory agency.

5 Responses to China’s One Child Policy

  1. Various questions, more or less in order as they come up:

    1. Are abuses still common? Forced abortions were certainly all too common in the 1980s. But today?

    2. Absent restrictions, would women have more children?

    3. Even if women do start having more children, does that help or hurt? For the next 16-20 years they would be dependents, on top of dependent elderly. Wouldn’t that exacerbate rather than alleviate the challenge of dealing with a bulge in those out of the labor force? And even with a sharp rise in fertility, how long would it take to halt the decline in population?

  2. Professor brought up some interesting points. I remember from a previous post that discussed a similar issue that said if the restrictions were lifted that women would not have more children. Another child would just equate to more costs in the short-term. Again, as professor noted, the child would be dependent for nearly 20 years. This would take a hard toll on the family, especially if they were already struggling. This issue is extremely interesting though. The lack of a sufficient work force to support the aging mass is an important issue. There simply may not be enough money to do so. The other post also discussed how the gender ratio is so skewed towards men that in the upcoming years there won’t be enough women for the men to marry and thus reproduce with. There is expected to be a large number of single men unable to find a spouse.

  3. According to China’s own census numbers they have “prevented” 400,000,000 live births in the last thirty years with their “one child only policy”. Effectively they have cut their fertility by 75% over the thirty year period, reducing the number of babies born from about 40,000,000 per year in the 1970s to about 10,000,000 per year now. This artificial, state mandated, tampering with the natural birth rate will have catastrophic results. Consider the following: Reducing live births by 400,000,000 eventually reduces the labor force by 400,000,000. China’s abundant labor force is currently their single biggest asset. It also reduces potential consumers by 400,000,000 just in time for China to become more dependant on a market economy. And finally because of they are missing 400,000,000 people, China’s young people will not have the critical mass to pay enough tax to support hundreds of millions of elderly Chinese when it is their turn to do the heavy lifting. According to demographers worldwide China has committed the biggest demographic blunder in the history of the world. China needs to enjoy its prosperity now because it is only a matter of time before this ticking demographic time bomb blows up.

    • This comment takes Chinese government propaganda at face value. In its early years the policy was draconian, with at least some forced late-term abortions. But prosperity means the opportunity cost for women of having children is now very different than in 1982. The most recent estimates suggest that the total elimination of the “one child policy” (which, given many exceptions, is roughly a 1.47 children policy) would give a total fertility rate of 1.69 children per female. China is thus similar to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand (and Mediterranean Europe) in having fertility rates below the 2.1 replacement level.

      Second, Japan is already seeing a declining population thanks to 40 years of below-replacement fertility. Certainly this will require higher taxes, but well within OECD norms. (I’ve done a paper looking at this, there are many other careful studies.) China faces challenges, because it is not as prosperous, but what matters over time is how productive the labor force is. Diminishing marginal returns means that fewer workers are more productive workers; the up-and-coming generation is better educated and better socialized than their elders, and have more capital to work with and a deeper reservoir of technical and organizational skills to match. The numbers in this comment – both 400mil fewer workers and 400 mil consumers – suggest total neutrality in per capita terms.

      This is not a demographic time bomb that will blow up. It will entail a gradual increase in societal resources devoted to caring for elderly dependents – offset in part by a decrease in those devoted to youth. It is quite a shift, as work by Ronald Lee and Andrew Mason show, because in historical societies the norm was for parents to transfer resources “downward” up until they died; on average, retirement did not exist. We will now see resources being transferred from children to (grand)parents. That’s new, but China will not be the first to undergo this transition – Japan and Italy are already there.

      For my students, these issues are the focus of Chapter 5 of Brandt & Rawski (Wang & Mason on demography), and of Chapter 20 (Perkins & Rawski, forecasting China’s future). There’s also plenty of information in the recently issued World Bank study, China 2030.

  4. This is a difficult issue as it has significant humanitarian implications. Would China be better off by nixing the one child rule and allowing the population to increase again to combat this potential problem? This may have further reaching impacts as there are already so many people in China. Should humanitarian concerns take precedent over economic concerns? Clearly this just adds to the laundry list of issues that China’s government should be addressing right now.