The End of the One-Child Policy

Published on Author guenc17

Last week, China began the process of phasing out its 36 year-old One-Child Policy in the face of slowing population growth and a massive elderly demographic. The policy, enacted in 1979, was designed to be a temporary measure to curb a surging Chinese population, for fear of a looming resource crisis brought on by overpopulation. The policy is famous worldwide, but its reach was much narrower than many realized. Officials from the National Population and Family Planning Commission reported in 2011 that only 35.9% of Chinese faced strict one-child regulations; as we have seen in our readings this rule clearly did not apply to the rural families Peter Hessler encountered in his travels. Some were allowed a second child if the first was a girl, and ethnic minorities were also exempt from the policy. Though they represent only 9% of the population, that is still approximately 122 million people, not counting many others who either ignored the regulations or were not scrutinized by the government for having multiple children.

The Chinese government claimed the policy prevented 400 million births over its 30+ year tenure, but this number bears skepticism. In a paper for Harvard, Whyte et. al. demonstrated that birth rates in China had fallen drastically in the decades preceding the enactment of the policy. While it also prompted a large onetime spike in birth control operations (IUDs, abortions and sterilizations), the one-child policy accelerated an existing trend instead of creating a drastic new one. Regardless of the numbers, many recent news pieces have highlighted the toll the policy took on people. A National Geographic article published on Oct. 29 detailed a history of forced abortions, sterilizations and infanticide, as well as the emergent gender imbalance (119 boys to every 100 girls in 2009) created by Chinese value of male children over female ones. The enforcement of the policy is widely regarded to be rife with human and civil rights violations; according to the Chicago Tribune, in 2012 alone 6.7 million women were forced to have abortions. These numbers come from the government, who time and again have proven to release dubiously accurate figures. Further stories abound of “family planning teams” barging into homes and tearing up residences in pursuit of violators. A piece in The Guardian described the all-consuming effects the policy had on all aspects of Chinese life, from marriage choice to only-child psychology, asserting that the lifestyle changes the policy forced will take generations to shed completely.

Following the surprise announcement, many news outlets and scholars alike began to weigh and draw on recent literature concerning the future of China’s population. The UN Department of Economics and Social Affairs predicted a substantial population dip was to occur beginning around 2030; Washington DC’s Population Reference Bureau asserts that the expansion to a two-child policy will delay this expected reduction by about 5 years. More serious is the rapid percentage of the population considered elderly; by 2035, 20% of the population is expected to be over 65, imposing astronomical costs on China as its workforce dwindles. Soon, the one child generation’s couples will have to care for four parents, themselves and their two children, all while combating slower economic growth and rising urban living costs. In a piece by Newsweek, interviewed subjects claim that high housing prices in the biggest cities make it impossible to afford one child, much less take advantage of the ability to have two. Given this policy change, it is clear that China’s biggest question in the coming decades will not be a significant population spike; higher education levels, increased cost of living and falling fertility rates will curb the growth. Rather, finding a way to support a massive aging population with a smaller working age one without suffering economic regression will trouble the government for years to come.

8 Responses to The End of the One-Child Policy

  1. I apologize for not being able to size the USAToday graph correctly, it looks fine in editing but then blows up upon publishing.

    • Some sites have clever ways to prevent linking directly to their images. You can though put in references to what you find, for example making a link that includes the ref to Natl Geog or to Whyte.

  2. Have you seen any articles or reading on where China’s population would be without the 1 child policy? I understand birth rates were trending down before enactment of this policy, but is there a specific number experts seem to hover around that is less criticized than the 400 million?

  3. It will be interesting to see down the road if the removal of this policy will improve the consumption figures the Chinese government is longing for to help grow their economy. Also the expansion of the population might force reforms in the Hukou system, if more people want to migrate to the city.

  4. Since only about a third of Chinese are affected by the one-child policy, how sure are we that allowing an extra child will create the population China wants? If only having one child is ingrained in Chinese culture, what guarantee is there that the lack of restriction will actually in turn create more births? Perhaps China may need to offer incentives for having children to attain the population it wants. China could then use Hukou in tandem with these incentives, offering conditional incentives to rural families if they indeed stay rural if it needs more farmers for example.

    • I suppose there is no guarantee, but the consensus among analysis and predictions I read hovers around an extra 70-100 million births between now and 2030. Obviously there is wild variation possible in these numbers; future occurrences could spur the Chinese to have more and more children, or it could go the way of Japan and see birth rates continue to plummet as the country modernizes. I don’t think, however, China will need to incentivize having children.

  5. While the ending of the One-Child Policy will definitely result in an increase in births, I agree with Will that since the system of having only one child has been the norm for so long, the ending of the One-Child Policy might not have as much of an impact as the Chinese hope. As Professor Smitka mentioned in class, the costs of having children have dramatically increased, while the benefits have decreased. I would assume that in order to effectively increase the population, the government needs to improve the benefits of having more children by offering various incentives for having more children.

    • Two hypotheses – can we distinguish / test?

      – “has been the norm for so long” – a model of habit formation and (implicitly) only slow change thereof

      – “costs of having” – responds to environment and (implicitly) can change rapidly