By: Philip Bowring

For more than three decades the One-Child policy has been among the most discussed, praised and reviled aspects of post-Mao, reform-era China.

But the facts of China’s demographics over the past 50 years suggest that the impact of the policy has been vastly exaggerated so easing of it will similarly have a modest medium-term impact – though in the short term a baby boomlet is possible.

One-Child is credited by supporters with ending an exponential increase in the population of an already mostly over-crowded land. It is condemned for the authoritarian impulses which have sought to suppress individual and family choice, and the vicious manner in which it has sometimes been carried out with enforced – late term abortions and similar horrors.

Now that the policy is to be relaxed, according to the recent Communist Party plenum, it is widely assumed that the rapid aging of China’s population may begin to slow and China return to a fertility rate – 2.1 children per woman of fertile age – which ensures long-run stability in the population, not the decline currently projected.

By East Asian standards, there is almost nothing exceptional about China’s demographic trends over the past 50 years, whether during or after the Mao era when, according to officials, population increase was supposed to strengthen the nation. The decline in fertility in China for half a century almost exactly parallels that of Thailand, a socially and sexually more open society which did no more to promote it than advertise the benefits of smaller families and make condoms easily and cheaply available.

The dominance in the public and especially foreign mind of the One-Child slogan over reality is surprising because the facts are clear-cut. Whether one uses the total fertility rate or the crude birth rate as a yardstick, the significant decline in births began in the mid-1960s. This might be attributable to the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution, the period 1970-75 – when Mao was still alive. The fertility rate saw a steep drop that speeded further in the second half of the 1970s even though the One-Child policy was not introduced until the end of the decade. Nonetheless, that decade saw the fertility rate fall by 50 percent and the crude birth rate by 33 percent.

The 1980s, the first full decade of One-Child, saw scant further decline. The next big drop came in the 1990s which took the fertility rate from around 2.8 to 1.6 by the end of the millennium. It has stayed around that level for the past decade. It could be argued that the 1990s fall was partially a result of One-Child but a more likely explanation is the rapid industrialization and the movement of tens of millions, especially young women, from inland rural areas to jobs in coastal cities.

The reality running through China today, as in the 1980s, is that the One-Child policy is loosely and erratically applied and most parents still have more than one child. That minority peoples such as Tibetans and Uighurs are exempt from the policy does little to explain the actual totals as their numbers are small relative to China’s 1.3 billion. Equally, relaxing the policy may well be counterbalanced by continuing urbanization and its accompanying demands for spending on housing. Shanghai announced a relaxation for its residents a decade ago but its fertility rate remains very low. Elsewhere relaxation will be applied as unevenly as the policy has been imposed in the past. In practice ending the hukou system of residence permits might do more to raise fertility by enabling urban migrant workers now deprived of social benefits to raise families more easily.

The One-Child policy is also blamed for the gender imbalance which is making China’s demographic outlook even bleaker than the overall statistics suggest. The sex ratio at birth went from 107 males per 100 females in 1980 (the global norm is 105) to 117 in the latest decade. For sure the preference for male children in Chinese society would be enhanced by prohibition on a second child.

But sex selection came after the steep falls in the birth rate. The main culprit has been early determination of the sex of a fetus by ultrasound. Similar sex imbalances are found in parts of India where there are no official constraints on the number of children. Nor are such imbalances found in countries with similarly low fertility rates such as Japan and Thailand.

Overall it is hard to see that China will be any more successful than its immediate neighbors in raising its fertility rate unless it can dramatically lower the opportunity cost of child-rearing in a country where most women work. As it is, China’s rate is still ahead of Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, places with rates below the West European average of 1.6. As for the past 50 years, China remains almost on par with Thailand.

China Thailand
Years Total Fertility Rate Sex Ratio at Birth*
1960-65 6.11 6.14 1.07
1965-70 5.94 5.99 1.07
1970-75 4.77 5.05 1.07
1975-80 3.01 3.92 1.07
1980-85 2.69 2.95 1.07
1985-90 2.87 2.30 1.09
1990-95 2.05 1.99 1.12
1995-00 1.56 1.77 1.14
2000-05 1.55 1.60 1.16
2005-10 1.63 1.49 1.17
2012 1.55 na na

Ratio of male to female births. Global norm is 1.05

Crude birth rate (births per 1,000 population)


Crude birth rate



























Source: UN Population Projections 2012 Revision