Just to follow up yesterday’s blog/rant, there is an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by Philip Bowring arguing that the likely changes to China’s one-child policy will not make much difference to China’s low fertility rate.  In short, China faces demographic problems that will continue even if the one-child policy is lifted. The reason why it is expected that some relaxation will occur of the one-child policy (if not its abolition) is the noises that were made publically during the National People’s Congress:

“The National People’s Congress on March 10 proposed moving population policy to the National Development and Reform Commission. This body will take a broader view of the country’s economic needs than China’s soon-to-be-irrelevant family planning commission, which often seemed oblivious to population shifts after the one-child policy launched in 1979.”

However, even if the National Development and Reform Commission seeks to resurrect China’s sagging birth rate, Bowring argues that removing the one-child policy by itself will not make much difference.  The most that Bowring concedes is that it may significantly reduce the shocking gender imbalance with too many boys and too few girls being born:

“Chinese fertility has declined steadily from around 6 births per woman of fertile age in 1950 to around 1.6 today. However, the fertility rate was already declining drastically before the one-child policy was introduced in 1979. It fell from about 5.0 in 1970 to 3.0 a decade later, partly due to the disruption of the Cultural Revolution. China’s fertility trend over the past 60 years has been almost identical to that of Thailand, which never used coercion and instead simply made contraception cheaply available.

Apart from coercion, the big difference between fertility in China and Thailand is China’s gender imbalance. This imbalance has been 12% to 15% above international norms for nearly two decades.

Many families faced with pressure to have only one child opted to abort female fetuses. But cultural norms also play a role. South Korea and parts of India, for instance, also show gender imbalances that are in no way linked to government policies. In China, ending the one-child policy should significantly reduce, but not eliminate, the gender imbalance.”

Because there is already a gender imbalance in the 0-24 year old age cohort, with many millions fewer women than men, it will be hard for China to maintain its fertility rate in the medium term. There are simply too few potential mothers coming through.  And the potential mothers that are reaching childbearing age are likely to have fewer rather than more children by chose, irrespective of the one-child policy. Bowring argues:

“Regardless of the one-child policy, fertility rates in China’s urban areas are already lower than in rural ones, in part because of cities’ higher cost of living. The hukou household registration system further discourages urban fertility by depriving tens of millions of migrant workers access to social services that could ease the financial burden of child-rearing.

China also has one of the highest female workforce participation rates in the world, and the relative position of urban women is rising thanks to education and increased economic sophistication. Persuading them have children and sacrifice their careers is becoming more difficult.

Under these circumstances it is quite possible that China’s urban fertility rate will fall to the low rates, from 1.0 to 1.3, that today are seen in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea. Shanghai has had almost a decade of allowing many exceptions to the one-child rule, but its fertility rate is 0.7, the lowest in the world among major cities.”

Many women in China fear for their careers or jobs if they become pregnant and the costs of raising a child is seen to be prohibitive by many. Bowring argues that government policies will change these attitudes:

“China will need dramatic reductions in the direct and opportunity costs of raising bigger families. That suggests providing free day care and kindergarten alongside free primary schooling. Doing so would enable more women to combine motherhood with careers, not to mention raise education standards. Another requirement is to legislate greater job security for pregnant women and new mothers, so that they do not feel forced to choose between work and family.”

That may help, but as we’ve mentioned before on this blog, changing attitudes towards families and children come from within each person. A government may raise or reduce barriers towards families, it may encourage or discourage the family unit through policies and pronouncements, but until people want to have families and want to sacrifice something to have them, then China’s (and many other countries’) birth rates will continue to hover below the replacement rate.


Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...