The End of the One-Child Policy

After years of hesitation, the Chinese government on Thursday finally announced the repeal of its controversial one-child policy, which will now be replaced with a two-child policy. The move is welcome on human rights grounds. It may also help to mitigate China’s gender imbalance. Unfortunately, it won’t do much to advance the government’s main objective, which according to the Central Committee’s official announcement is to “counter the aging of the population.”

When China first put in place the one-child policy three decades ago, the country seemed to face a looming Malthusian crisis. With child mortality rates falling rapidly, persistently high birthrates threatened to lead to runaway population growth and leave the country mired in poverty. China’s leaders determined that they would have to lower birthrates drastically in order to lay the foundations for future prosperity. Beginning in the early 1970s, the government began encouraging couples to limit their family size to just two children. Then, in the early 1980s, it implemented the one-child policy, together with a system of targets, birth permits, and penalties to enforce it.

At the time, no one gave much thought to the inevitable sequel to a sudden and steep decline in the fertility rate: the eventual dramatic aging of China’s population and the new set of social and economic challenges that it would bring. Those challenges lay over the horizon in a distant future. The government’s repeal of the one-child policy represents a belated recognition that this future is about to arrive. The pressing demographic problem facing China is no longer rapid population growth, but rapid population aging, which threatens to undermine the twin pillars of the current regime’s legitimacy—economic growth and social stability.

Slowing population aging, however, may prove to be much more difficult than slowing population growth. Even if Chinese birthrates were to surge overnight, it would have no impact on the size of the working-age population or the ratio of workers to retirees over the next twenty years and only a modest one over the next thirty years. Demography is like an ocean liner: once it is steaming full speed ahead it takes a long time to turn around.

A new baby boom, moreover, is the last thing that most demographers expect. To begin with, the repeal of the one-child policy is not as big a change as it might seem. Many groups have long been exempt from it, including ethnic minorities and, to some extent, rural residents. In the countryside, where local authorities have typically allowed families whose first child is a girl to “try for a son,” the fertility rate is already close to 2.0. As for China’s cities, after several decades of the one-child policy, the one-child family has become the new social norm. When the government relaxed the policy in 2013 by allowing couples in which at least one parent is an only child to have a second child, just one out of ten of those who were eligible even bothered to apply.

The truth is that China’s low fertility rate, now 1.6, is not so much the result of the one-child policy as it is of economic development. Yes, the one-child policy pulled down the fertility rate much sooner and faster than would otherwise have occurred. But it would have come down anyway as incomes and educational attainment have risen. China is not the only East Asian society in which birthrates have collapsed. The fertility rate in Hong Kong, where the one-child policy has never been applied, is now just 1.0. In South Korea it is 1.2 and in Taiwan it is 1.3.

Although eliminating the one-child policy won’t do much to slow the aging of China’s population, it may do a lot to mitigate another demographic problem: China’s gender imbalance. An unintended side-effect of the policy has been widespread sex-selective abortion, as parents have tried to ensure that their only child is a son, who in Confucian culture has the responsibility of caring for his aged parents. China’s “missing girls” have now grown up to become its missing brides. The resulting bachelor surplus of unmarriageable young males, numbering at least 30 million, constitutes a kind of ersatz youth bulge whose members, given competition in the marriage market, belong disproportionately to society’s least privileged classes. By relieving anxieties about having a son, the repeal of the one-child policy may help to defuse this social time bomb.

Ironically, the repeal of the one-child policy may even help to ease the burden of caring for China’s growing elderly population, which by 2050 will exceed the total current population of the United States. Although China’s son preference is rooted in the desire of families to ensure their old-age security, the perverse result is actually to undermine that security. After all, a bride shortage also amounts to a daughters-in-law shortage. And even in Confucian societies, it is not the son who normally cares for the frail elderly, but the daughter-in-law.

Richard Jackson is a Senior Associate at CSIS and President of the Global Aging Institute.

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Richard Jackson