China’s one-child policy is crumbling in the face of popular discontent and demographic reality. Last month Guangdong, the prosperous southern province which is also China’s most populous, appealed to Beijing to end it. But do not imagine that doing so is going to make a crucial difference to the rapid aging of China’s population.
Though the total population will continue to rise for the next 15 or so years, the number of working age people (15 to 64) is peaking about now, will stay on a plateau for several years and then begin a gradual decline.
It is now received wisdom in the west that China’s enforcement of the policy is the cause of a singularly rapidly aging population and that sex selection is rampant across Asia, leading to a large excess of boys. It is also now being alleged in some quarters that frantic western promotion of birth control in developing countries since the 1960s has been at least partly responsible for such gender discrimination. The wisdom ignores the facts.
For sure, China’s one-child policy represents a general assault on human rights and in many localities has been implemented with forced abortions, sterilizations and other barbarities. But move away from the rhetoric and propaganda and it is evident that the policy has been more honored in the breach than in the observance and that China’s demographic transition from high to low fertility levels has been slower than in much of Asia as it was only lightly enforced in many rural areas and not at all among ethnic minorities. Overall China’s fertility rate (the average number of births per woman of fertile age) fell relatively gradually from 4.7 at the end of the Maoist era before the one-child policy was introduced in 1979 to around 1.7 today, a level higher than in most of east Asia and roughly in line with the European average.
The change was much slower than in Thailand where the rate went from 6.0 in 1970 to just 2.0 by 1990 without any compulsion. The Thai government simply made condoms easily and cheaply available. Like China more recently, Thailand was then a predominantly still-rural but rapidly urbanizing society.
Fertility profiles similar to Thailand’s were also found in urban Hong Kong and Singapore, and in rapidly industrializing South Korea and Taiwan with little or no government use of incentives to limit family size. Even more dramatic was Vietnam’s wartime shift from a 7.0 fertility rate to just 2.0 within twenty years.
Formally ending the one-child policy would probably result in a short-term rise in fertility as formerly discouraged parents rushed to take advantage of the new freedom. But it is hard to see why China should be any different from Thailand. Indeed the mix of urbanization, high apartment prices, the cost of health care and education and low levels of social security provision could well result in fertility falling even further – to the levels of 1.0 to 1.3 now seen in the three predominantly Chinese entities, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Indeed in Shanghai it has fallen below 1.0 and defied earlier official easing of the one-child policy there.
The opportunity cost of child-rearing in east Asian societies with high proportions of women in the workforce is immense as income foregone is added to the direct cost of child-rearing. China’s female workforce participation rate is among the highest in the world. Contributory factors to low fertility include short maternity leave, inadequate job protection for young mothers, and lack of affordable nursery care or worthwhile tax or cash incentives. Together these largely explain why fertility rates are significantly lower than the average for developed western countries. The highest fertility rates in western countries are mostly those in countries such as the Netherlands, France, Sweden and New Zealand with fertility-friendly welfare policies or where women are encouraged to combine careers with motherhood.
China has the added problem of its hukou or residency permit system which denies many internal migrants access to welfare and education services in their place of employment and this makes it difficult to for couples to have children. The sheer scale of migration has also been in factor in postponing marriage itself as many of the new light industries, particularly the export-oriented ones of the southern coastal regions, mainly employ women who thus have limited opportunity to meet marriage partners or may anyway prefer to earn money before returning to their home districts to settle down.
Then there is the problem of the sheer shortage of girls so that there now only 90 girls for 100 men in China’s teen and younger age groups. Not only are there insufficient girls to sustain the birth rate but scarcity is making them more choosy and delaying marriage. This gender imbalance is often blamed on the one-child policy. For sure, it has had some impact as those actually being forced to have only one child (a minority) abort female fetuses. But experience from the rest of Asia suggests that cultural factors are at least as important.
Far from being a common trait throughout Asia, sex selection significantly favoring boys is only found in China, Korea and parts of India. It is nowhere to be found in other major Asian countries including Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, nor in South Asia apart from India. Even in Chinese Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, whose populations have long had ready access to testing and abortion of fetuses, it is barely evident. But the years of foreign rule in all three societies may have eroded prejudices favoring males.
As for India, the prevalence of sex imbalance varies enormously from very high in Punjab to non-existent in the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. These variations can be only partly explained by reference to income, education levels and urbanization. Social and belief factors are the main causes. Nor is there any evident link between low fertility rates and sexual imbalance. The state with the lowest fertility rate, Kerala, also has zero imbalance. It makes no sense to blame the central government, let alone foreign promoters of contraception, for the regional differences. Given that sex imbalances do not exist in the rest of south, southeast or west Asia, it is equally ridiculous to find a link between it and western development aid supporting population limitation.
China’s combination of a rapid fall in its fertility rate with the sex imbalance issues will in time create social and economic problems as least as severe as those elsewhere in east Asia, which will also be worse than those in the west. But ending the one-child policy is not a solution. In China and India a change in social attitudes is the key to ending sex selection. And in China as in other parts of east Asia, drastic cuts in child-rearing costs are the key to reversing the decline in fertility to what are in the long run unsustainable levels.