The One-Child Policy that Wasn’t

Great exaggeration has been made of the headline news from the just-ended Communist Party Central Committee Plenum about China ending its One Child policy. In the first place the policy is merely being “adjusted,” not abolished. While many in China are aware that for the future a scarcity of young people will be a major constraint on development, others still feel that China is too over-crowded and that longer lifespans demand continuation of strict limits on fertility.

As in the past this is likely to mean that One Child implementation will in practice be very varied, with some authorities sticking to rigid definitions of the exceptions to be allowed, such as families where one of the parents is an only child, while in others – especially the major cities – application, at least to hukou-holding residents, is slack.

But all of this misses the much bigger point that, contrary to received media wisdom the impact of the One Child policy has been greatly exaggerated if one looks at China as a whole. Hence any changes in that policy, including complete abolition, will have very limited and probably only short term impact.

The One Child order has of course always been an example of the inhuman as well as authoritarian nature of the one-party state and on occasions has been accompanied by vicious practices such as enforced late-term abortions as well as administrative sanctions against parents having a second child. Given that countries such as Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea all achieved dramatic reductions in fertility rates without recourse to such measures alone is enough to demonstrate the arrogance of the party which even now claims One Child policy to have been a great success.

But even a cursory glance at China’s fertility data shows that the One Child policy has had much less impact than either its critics or supporters contend. Instead of a precipitate drop in the fertility rate following the introduction of the policy in 1979, the evidence is of an almost continuous decline through the latter Mao years and afterwards, a decline which was strikingly similar to those experienced in other east Asian countries. The steepest fall was in the 1970s. Even with One Child, as recently as the mid-1990s China’s total fertility rate (the number of births per woman of fertile age) was two children, not one. This mass departure from One Child cannot be attributed to the non-application of it to ethnic minority areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang. Those are not sufficiently populous to have a major impact on all-China data. Even today actual fertility is 1.55 children per woman.

One would also have expected the relaxation of many social controls which has occurred in the past two decades would have already led to a recovery in the fertility rate. In the case of Shanghai, the policy was abandoned a decade ago for several couple categories. Yet the fertility rate has continued to fall everywhere, most notably in the biggest cities such as Shanghai.

Clearly then other factors have been at work, the most obvious of which are urbanization which has both brought job opportunities for women and coincided with the ending of blanket social protection. The education, health and housing costs of child-rearing are now a bigger constraint on fertility than One Child policy and are likely to remain so at least until social policies change to reduce these costs. Those will probably come in response to public expectations, but the process will be evolutionary so it could well be a decade before fertility rises again.

The One Child policy has however contributed to a problem which is now as serious as low fertility itself – sex selection which has given rise to a surplus of 12-15 percent of boys over girls in the 0-20 age groups. Ultrasound has enabled parents wanting or being required to have only one child to opt to abort female fetuses. But similar sex imbalances are also seen in parts of India (notably Punjab) where there are no official constraints on fertility, and to a lesser degree also in South Korea.

Perceptions in the public mind that such sex selection help, not hinder the male species may gradually lead back to balance. But a rise in overall fertility rates seems more likely to result from changes in the economics of child-rearing than either official policy or popular perceptions of the relative value of men and women,

The plenum announcement on One Child could have a short term impact as couples wanting more children are emboldened to have them. But if Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore are any example, it will need a lot more than that to sustain a higher fertility rate. Ratio of male to female births. Global norm is 1.05 Period Total fertility rate Sex ratio at birth* 1960-65 6.11 1.07 1965-70 5.94 1.07 1970-75 4.77 1.07 1975-80 3.01 1.07 1980-85 2.69 1.07 1985-90 2.87 1.09 1990-95 2.05 1.12 1995-00 1.56 1.14 2000-05 1.55 1.16 2005-10 1.63 1.17 2012 1.55 n.a. Crude birth rate (births per 1,000 population) Period Crude birth rate 1950-1955 42.2 1955-1960 36.4 1960-1965 39.5 1965-1970 37.5 1970-1975 31.1 1975-1980 22.0 1980-1985 22.3 1985-1990 25.6 1990-1995 18.9 1995-2000 13.7 2000-2005 12.4 2005-2010 13.1