The Chinese government’s repeal of the one-child policy is an attempt to slow the growth of age and gender imbalances in its population. China's leaders fear these imbalances will fuel social unrest and impede economic development. While the decision seems to be a major policy reversal, it is unlikely to have a significant impact on China’s demographics, particularly its low birth rate.
On October 29, China’s leadership put an end to its one-child policy by announcing that all married couples will now be allowed to have two children. The one-child policy was first implemented in the early 1970s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, amid fears that rampant population growth would eventually lead to mass poverty in China. The policy was repealed due to the Communist Party’s concerns about the country’s diminishing labor supply and aging population. As a result of the policy, 12 percent of China’s population is over the age of 60, and there are an estimated 62 million so-called missing girls due to high rates of sex-selective abortions, infanticide, and child neglect. These demographic changes have resulted in a large number of bachelors, creating fears of instability related to increases in male criminal activity and female trafficking. The size of the working population has also sharply decreased relative to the aging population, resulting in increased healthcare and pension costs, wage depression, and lower tax revenues, therefore slowing economic growth overall. Prior to repealing the policy, China had previously eased restrictions in 2013, allowing married couples to have a second child if one of the spouses was an only child.
While the repeal of the one-child policy may seem like a monumental change for China, there are two main reasons that the decision does not represent a significant shift from the status quo. First, although the one-child policy is often held responsible for China’s demographic imbalances and low fertility rate, evidence suggests that the one-child policy may no longer be the main driving force behind these changes. China’s current fertility rate of 1.6 children per woman is comparable to its neighbors South Korea and Taiwan, who have not been exposed to a one-child policy, suggesting that the decline in fertility rate is largely the result of economic development. Although China’s one-child policy decreased the fertility rate unnaturally quickly, increased income and educational attainment (resulting from economic development) would have eventually pulled the fertility rate down to its current level. In addition, prior to its recent repeal, the one-child policy had been relaxed for a number of years. Ethnic minorities were already exempt, and rural residents were often allowed a second child in order to increase the likelihood that families would have a son. Thus, for citizens outside China’s main cities, the two-child policy is nothing new.
The repeal of the one-child policy is likely to have a limited impact. Fertility rates are likely to remain low as a consequence of economic development. This was evidenced after the 2013 relaxation of the policy, in which the vast majority of eligible families did not opt to have an additional child due to the expense and pressures of raising children in China’s competitive society. The repeal of the one-child policy will also be unable to slow population aging for quite some time, since it will not impact the size of the working-age population for several decades. However, the new policy may eventually help to mitigate China’s large gender imbalance by decreasing the number of sex-selective abortions and infanticides. At the same time, the repeal of the policy will be unable to reverse decades of female sterilization. In the long term, it will likely take much more than the repeal of the one-child policy to grow the Chinese population and reduce its demographic imbalances.
Monique is a Contributor to Parabellum Asia.