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Easing One-Child Policy May Be Too Late

A Chinese policy that generally limited families to one child has been revised: Couples can have two children if either spouse is an only child. But China may discover that increasing family size is tougher than reduction, warns demographer Joseph Chamie. “This mid-course correction in population policy will have marginal effect as China is aging at a much faster pace than occurred in other countries,” he writes. “This, along with a shrinking workforce and critical gender imbalance, will increasingly tax the government.” Chamie presents five projections for China’s population through the end of the century – with the current birthrate, China’s population could dip below 900 million by 2100; if the policy were scrapped and the birthrate approached replacement level, the population could rise to more than 1.8 billion. A shrinking workforce reduces prosperity, yet global trends point to parents in China and elsewhere limiting family size regardless of government incentives, all spurred by limited social protections on education, jobs or the environment. – YaleGlobal

Easing One-Child Policy May Be Too Late

China’s one-child policy lifted living standards, but set a hard-to-reverse trend of demographic decline
Joseph Chamie
YaleGlobal, 7 January 2014
Baby steps to stop aging: Doting on one child, top; China’s superannuated wait around for benefits

NEW YORK: In an attempt to mitigate a near-certain demographic future of rapid aging, shrinking labor force and critical gender imbalance, the Chinese government has adjusted its one-child policy. The decision demonstrates that, irrespective of a nation’s politico-economic system, governments cannot avoid demography’s juggernaut consequences. This mid-course correction in population policy will have marginal effect as China is aging at a much faster pace than occurred in other countries. This, along with a shrinking workforce and critical gender imbalance, will increasingly tax the government.

The new policy, set at the provincial level, will permit couples to have two children if either the husband or wife is an only child. Under the previous policy, two children were allowed for ethnic minorities, rural families whose firstborn is a daughter, and couples with both spouses as only children.

China instituted its one-child policy in the late 1970s because it feared that its rapidly growing population placed an untenable burden on economic growth and improving standards of living. At the start of the 1970s, China’s fertility rate was above five children per couple and its population was growing at more than 2 percent per year, adding more than 20 million Chinese annually. If the demographic growth of the 1970s had persisted, China would perhaps have added 400 million people more to its current population of 1.39 billion.

Had 1970s demographic growth persisted, China might have added 400 million to its current population of 1.39 billion.

As a result of rapid declines in birth and death rates over the past four decades, China’s life expectancy at birth has increased by more than 10 years to 75 years. With steep declines in fertility and increasing longevity, China’s population has aged rapidly over the past 40 years, with the median age nearly doubling from 19 to 35 years. The adoption of the one-child policy also accelerated the decline in the proportion of China’s children, falling precipitously from 40 percent in 1970 to 18 percent today.

In contrast, the working-age population aged 15 to 64 years jumped from 56 to 73 percent, higher than the 62 percent average for more developed countries. The extraordinary age-structure transformation allowed China to benefit from the demographic dividend, a short-term productive advantage due to a large labor force relative to small numbers of dependent young and old. Throughout the past four decades, China’s potential support ratio, or working-age persons per retiree, was high, early on 14 working-age persons per retiree, and now eight, versus three per retiree in Germany, Italy and Japan and five per retiree in Australia, Canada and the United States.

Also, before the one-child policy, China’s sex ratio at birth averaged around 107 boys for every 100 girls. Ten years after the policy’s adoption, the ratio reached 115 boys for 100 girls and may exceed 125 in some provinces, reflecting the strong preference for sons, especially in rural farming areas. China’s unusually high sex ratio at birth indicates extensive use of sex-selective abortion. The number of young males unable to find brides is estimated at more than 25 million.

The critical factor determining China’s future population is the level of fertility. If China’s current fertility of about 1.6 births per woman were to remain constant, its population would peak at 1.44 billion in a dozen years and then begin declining, reaching a population of 1.33 billion by mid-century and 868 million by the century’s end (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Five projections for China   Enlarge image
Source: United Nations Population Division

In addition, constant fertility would reduce the proportions of children and the working-age population and nearly triple the proportion of elderly to 25 percent. As a result, China’s current potential support ratio of 8.3 working-age persons per retiree would fall to 2.5 persons per retiree by mid-century. China’s fertility could also decline further, perhaps approaching low levels of Germany, Hong Kong, Italy and Japan. Further reduction in Chinese fertility to 1.3 births per woman – the low variant - would accelerate population decline, shrinking labor force and aging, with China’s population peaking at 1.40 billion by this decade’s end, then declining to 600 million by 2100. In 50 years, one-third of the population would be elderly and the potential support ratio would fall to an unprecedented 1.6 working-age persons per retiree.

Estimates by Chinese officials and some scholars, however, suggest the relaxation in policy may lead to an increase of up to 2 million births per year, possibly a 10 percent increase – increasing China’s fertility rate from the current 1.6 births per woman to about 1.8 births per woman. With such a rise in fertility, the medium variant, China’s population would peak at 1.45 billion in 2030 and then decline to around 1 billion by the century’s close. Again, the population would continue aging, the elderly accounting for one-quarter of the population by 2050, and the potential support ratio falling to 2.6 working-age persons per retiree. If China decided to further relax to a “two-child policy,” the number of additional births might reach 5 million annually, with the fertility rate perhaps rising to replacement level. Under the instant replacement scenario, China’s future population does not decline, but stabilizes around 1.6 billion by mid-century. The Chinese population, however, would still age, with the proportion elderly increasing to a fifth and the potential support ratio falling to three working-age persons per retiree. 

If China ended the one-child policy altogether, future fertility could, although improbable, exceed the replacement level. For example, if Chinese fertility increased to a quarter-child above replacement, the high variant, China’s population by the close of the century would be nearly 1.8 billion. China’s population would not attain stabilization, but would continue growing at about 0.5 percent per year, an annual addition of 8 million Chinese.

Even with a baby “boomlet,” China’s labor force would continue to shrink and a gender imbalance would persist for generations.

In addition to increasing fertility, the relaxation of the one-child policy may improve China’s gender imbalance at least at birth. With more couples allowed to have a second child, the effects of the son preference on the sex ratio at birth should, in principle, be reduced. Also with the changing role and status of women in China, attitudes toward raising daughters are becoming more favorable. China may follow the pattern experienced in South Korea, where high sex ratios at birth declined to normal levels. Even if this does occur, the overall Chinese gender imbalance would remain for many decades.

No doubt uncertainty exists about the precise demographic impact of the most recent relaxation of China’s one-child policy.

Even if China were to experience a baby “boomlet,” the country would continue to age, its labor force shrink and its gender imbalance persist for generations. Also, while a rise in the birthrate would increase the demands for housing, education, food, care and related services, at least two decades would pass before the boomlet babies entered the workforce and paid taxes. Moreover, the favorable demographic dividend of many workers and few elderly that benefited China’s economy since 1980 is coming to an end. Soon the numbers of working-age Chinese per retiree will fall to levels of more developed countries. Although China had hoped otherwise, increasingly it appears the population will become old before it is rich.

Finally, irrespective of China’s decisions to relax its one-child policy, fertility is not likely to increase markedly in the foreseeable future. Major forces pointing to continuation of low Chinese fertility include increasing urbanization, smaller and costly housing, expanding higher education and career opportunities for women, high financial costs and time pressures for childrearing, and changing attitudes and lifestyles. China may soon discover, as many countries have concluded, raising low fertility rates is more challenging than reducing high fertility.


Joseph Chamie is a former director of the United Nations Population Division.

Rights:Copyright © 2014 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale

Comments on this Article

7 January 2014
China faces enormous water, energy, resource, food and environmental predicaments because of its 1.4 billion population. Beyond that, such calamities as the Yangtze River running as an open sewer creates a 20,000 square mile dead zone at its mouth--which continues to poison the oceans of the world. Its highly polluted air contaminates our entire biosphere in ever growing amounts of acidified oceans. China would be better to reduce its population to less than 300 million before Mother Nature steps in and does it for her. Frosty Wooldridge, six continent world bicycle traveler, including China
"The raging monster upon the land is population growth. In its presence, sustainability is but a fragile theoretical construct. To say, as many do, that the difficulties of nations are not due to people, but to poor ideology and land-use management is sophistic.” Harvard scholar and biologist E.O. Wilson
"Unlimited population growth cannot be sustained; you cannot sustain growth in the rates of consumption of resources. No species can overrun the carrying capacity of a finite land mass. This Law cannot be repealed and is not negotiable.” Dr. Albert Bartlett, , University of Colorado, USA.
“Most Western elites continue urging the wealthy West not to stem the migrant tide [that adds 80 million net gain annually to the planet], but to absorb our global brothers and sisters until their horrid ordeal has been endured and shared by all—ten billion humans packed onto an ecologically devastated planet.” Dr. Otis Graham, Unguarded Gates
Lester Brown, author of Plan B 4.0 Saving Civilization said, “The world has set in motion environmental trends that are threatening civilization itself. We are crossing environmental thresholds and violating deadlines set by nature. Nature is the timekeeper, but we cannot see the clock.”
"Somehow, we have come to think the whole purpose of the economy is to grow, yet growth is not a goal or purpose. The pursuit of endless growth is suicidal." David Suzuki
"Growth for the sake of yet more growth is a bankrupt and eventually lethal idea. CASSE is the David fighting the Goliath of endless expansion, and we know how that one turned out." ~ David Orr
The green revolution was instigated as a result of the efforts of Norman Borlaug, who, while accepting the Nobel peace prize in 1970, said: "The green revolution has won a temporary success in man's war against hunger and deprivation; it has given man a breathing space. If fully implemented, the revolution can provide sufficient food for sustenance during the next three decades. But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only."
"The cheap oil age created an artificial bubble of plentitude for a period not much longer than a human I hazard to assert that as oil ceases to be cheap and the world reserves move toward depletion, we will be left with an enormous population...that the ecology of the earth will not support. The journey back toward non-oil population homeostasis will not be pretty. We will discover the hard way that population hyper growth was simply a side-effect of the oil age. It was a condition, not a problem with a solution. That is what happened and we are stuck with it." James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency
-Frosty Wooldridge , Overpopulation in China severe and worsening