When China relaxed its one child policy late last year onlookers around the world expected a cultural shift.  The Chinese government and investors predicted a baby boom, with government officials making the application process cumbersome lest too many people apply at once. 

However, neither baby boom nor cultural shift has yet materialised and China will fall well short of the 1m-2m extra births that Wang Peian, the deputy director of the National Health Family Planning Commission, had predicted. Yang Wenzhuang, of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said about 271,600 couples had so far applied to have a second child, with permission given to 241,300.

Many point to too much bureaucracy as one cause.  The Economist notes that in the eastern city of Jinan married couples must provide seven different documents, including statements from employers certifying their marital status.  Some also report propaganda campaigns against having a second child by local government officials in certain regions who were worried about a baby boom.  Despite this, central government is still hesitant to extend the ‘privilege’ of having two children to all citizens and have indicated that this isn’t on the cards any time soon.

Another potential cause, which cannot be fixed as easily as changing paper forms, is simply that – as in so many countries – the preference has now moved to smaller families because that is what people are now culturally used to.  The cost of raising children is also perceived as high and tough competition for good schools and kindergartens is widespread.  

The trend towards women having children later in life also creates factors which makes having further children less attractive for families.  Rather than being helped by grandparents to bring up their children as was traditionally the case, many Chinese women find themselves looking after aging parents as well as caring for a baby or toddler.  As they are also single children – a legacy of the one child policy of the last 30 years – they have no siblings to help them out either.

Mu Guangzong, a professor of demography at Peking University’s Population Institute, says many government experts in the past overestimated the people’s motivation and resolve to have children.  He argues that “what we need to fear is not a baby boom threat but rather continued restrictions and low birth rates,”.

As a result many are still protesting that relaxing the one child policy has done little to stop the general Chinese cultural preference for boys (due to the fact that a girl joins her husband’s family and looks after them in old age) which has caused so many other demographical issues over the past few decades.  Reggie Littlejohn, founder and president of California-based Women’s Rights Without Frontiers comments that:

In the absence of changes made to Chinese cultural views, gendercide will continue unabated…China’s government could reduce the numbers of aborted or abandoned girls by providing economic incentives to families giving birth to girls and special compensation to retirement-age couples who have no sons to support them. But they have not taken any effective action at all.  There is no need for a one-child policy. It should be abolished entirely.

According to The Economist, China’s fertility rate has fallen to an estimated 1.5 children per couple, in line with the European average but below the 2.1 that maintains a constant population and is more normal for a country at China’s stage of development.   It further argues that:

With China ageing quickly, a higher birth rate is needed to underpin long-term social and economic stability. In the past, the state used harsh methods to stop its citizens having babies. In the future, it will have to find clever ways to encourage people to have them. Other countries, not least neighbouring Japan, have struggled with that.

Let’s hope that countries like China do not use ‘harsh methods’ to make people have children should that become economically advantageous in the near future.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...