We’ve talked many times on this blog about the One Child Policy in China. We’ve discussed its horrendous human cost: the forced abortions; the dead babies and dead mothers; the forced sterilisations; and the drastic curtailment of the Chinese people’s liberty.  We’ve also discussed the social and economic effects – the lack of girls and women, the shrinking labour force and the ageing population.  We’ve also discussed the difficulty that China will have in reversing its low fertility rate anytime soon.  Against all of these horrendous costs, the apologists (and there have been a few in the commentators on this blog) of the policy have posited its one unquestioned boon – the curtailment of China’s runaway population explosion up to 1980.

Well, today I’m going to question that boon.  In the io9 website, I came across this article that downplays the effect that the one child policy had upon China’s birthrate.  As the author says:

“…a rising group of demographers and sociologists is disputing that [the one child policy slowed China’s population growth].  By taking a closer look at population figures before and after the policy took effect, and by doing a more careful statistical analysis, researchers have found that China’s population growth rate would have decreased in any case, and the policy was not just cruel, but unnecessary.”

Cai Yong, a sociology professor at University of North Carolina has tried to reconstruct what would have happened in China had the policy not been introduced in 1980 (a hard thing to do as a counterfactual cannot be proven).  However, by studying the fertility rates of 16 comparable countries, Cai and his co-authors found that the projections of China’s future birth rate made when the policy was put in place was unrealistic. The Chinese government predicted that China’s birth rate would slow at a much slower rate than we can see the 16 comparable countries actually achieved.

Cai noted that Chinese Amercians have a fertility rate og 1.5 children per woman, similar to China’s in 2010. Japan has been around 1.3 children per woman for the last 30 years while Taiwan’s fertility rate is about 1 child per woman. Women in these countries have of course no one child policy to coerce fewer births.

“Cai and his colleagues also did a Bayesian analysis of China’s birth rate from 1970 to 1980 and tried to project what the trend would have been from 1980 onwards, if nothing else had changed. And they found a decline similar to the one observed in other countries.  So it seems likely that China could have reached a level of 1.5 children per women [sic] by 2010 regardless – but the decline might have been less steep.”

In the decade prior to the one child policy being introduced in 1980 China’s fertility rate had halved from 5.8 to 2.8 children per women.  This was in part due to governmental programmes that encouraged fewer children, but were less brutal than the one child policy.  The government made birth control easier to access, gave study sessions and meetings and the terrible economic conditions at the time also encouraged fewer children.  However, there were forced abortions stories making their way into the western press by as early as 1973.  So prior to 1980, the policy may have been less brutal, but was still pretty terrible!

Interestingly in 1974 the Chinese denounced western calls for birth control at the UN as part of an imperialist agenda. However, after experimenting with other policies over the next few years, the Chinese government had decided by 1980 that birth control and abortions were actually the way to go.  Despite the policy’s numerous loopholes, by 2005 this had resulted in 63 percent of Chinese couples being restricted to one child only. 

Furthermore, the researchers have found that attitudinal changes have come about through the three decades of the policy.  Cai published another paper in which he surveyed 30,000 women in Jiangsu Province. A third of these women were eligible to have a second child but only a third of these eligible women would consider having another child.  Further, when Cai returned to the province, only four percent of those eligible women had actually had a second child.  Mara Hvistendahl, author of “Unnatural Selection: Choosing boys over girls, and the consequences of a world full of men” says that:

“Perhaps the largest success of the policy, if you can call it that, is that it really turned China into a one-child [country].  Many people just don’t want more than one child now.”

As Cai notes, it’s much easier to reduce the fertility rate than it is to increase it.  So the growth rate of China’s population will continue to shrink and Cai expects China’s population to sink in the future.  Its labour force is shrinking and China will lose its competitive edge in that field. Men will find it harder to find wives. The population will get older and greyer. In fact, there’s plenty to suggest that we should talk about the one child policy in the same category as the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward.  That is, it’s another tragic disaster that we can lay at the feet of an overweening despotic state. Let us hope, once again, that this disaster will be brought to an end soon.

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...