Can China Afford to Continue ItsOne-Child Policy?W A N G F E N GAnalysis from the East-West CenterNo. 77March 2005S U M M A R Y Twenty-ﬁve years after it was launched, China’s “One Child”population control policy is credited with cutting population growth to an alltime low and contributing to two decades of spectacular economic develop-ment. But the costs associated with the policy are also apparent and are ris-ing: a growing proportion of elderly with inadequate government or familysupport, a disproportionately high number of male births attributable to sexselective abortion, increased female infant and child mortality rates, and thecollapse of a credible government birth reporting system. Today, as Chinacontemplates the future of the policy, many argue that a change that allowscouples to have two children will not lead to uncontrollable populationgrowth. Instead, it could help meet the fertility desires of most Chinese cou-ples; avoid a worsening of the demographic and social consequences alreadyevident; and relieve the Chinese government of the immense ﬁnancial andpolitical costs of enforcing an unpopular policy. But changes will need to comesoon if China is to avert even greater negative consequences of the policy.The U.S. Congress establishedthe East-West Center in 1960 tofoster mutual understanding andcooperation among the govern-ments and peoples of the AsiaPaciﬁc region, including the UnitedStates. Funding for the Centercomes from the U.S. governmentwith additional support providedby private agencies, individuals,corporations, and Asian and Paciﬁcgovernments.The Asia Pacific Issues seriescontributes to the Center’s roleas a forum for discussion ofissues of regional concern. Theviews expressed are those of theauthor and not necessarily thoseof the Center.AsiaPaciﬁcI S S U E S
China’s one-child-per-couple fertility policy, imple-mented in 1980, is now a quarter of a century old.Launched as an emergency measure to slow popu-lation growth at the start of Chinese economic re-forms, this policy is the largest and most extremesocial experiment in population growth control viagovernment intervention in human reproduction inworld history.Ever since its inception, the one-child policy hasbeen highly controversial. Proponents of the policyinsist that without such an extreme measure, con-tinued population growth would have doomed China’shope for quickly raising per capita income, a politi-cal mandate of post-Mao Chinese leadership. Propo-nents also argue that uncontrolled population growthwill result in further depletion of natural resourcesand bring irreparable harm to the environment.i Op-ponents of the policy, both inside and outside ofChina, point out that signiﬁcant fertility decline wasalready achieved by the late 1970s under a less ex-treme policy. They also warn of the high costs anddire consequences of such an unprecedented policy,including human rights violations, especially regard-ing women; the forceful alteration of China’s tradi-tional family structure; an imbalanced sex ratio, dueto a preference for sons; and a rapidly growing num-ber of elderly citizens.When the controversial policy was being formu-lated, it was generally agreed that it would not beperpetually enforced. Even the architects of the one-child policy anticipated that “in thirty years, whenthe current acutely pressing population problembecomes less severe, a different population policy canbe adopted.”ii Is it now time to explore such a pol-icy? Today, China’s fertility rate has dropped to alevel that is among the lowest in the world. Its two-decade long spectacular economic growth has in-creased the per capita living standard of the Chinesepopulation by more than fourfold. As the one-childpolicy passes its 25th year, observers within Chinaand abroad are reexamining the consequences ofthis unprecedented government population policyand questioning if, or when, the policy should beamended.China’s Fertility Policy: Myths and RealitiesThe answer to the question about the future of theone-child policy starts with the answer to anotherquestion: What exactly is China’s fertility policy today?Reports over the past two and a half decades oftenportray a conﬂicting picture. At one extreme, there isa popular impression that China’s population policy isnothing but a one-child policy. At the other extreme,media reports frequently suggest that China has re-laxed its policy. Both perceptions contain elementsof truth, yet neither is accurate.Soon after its initial implementation, the one-childpolicy—and the accompanying mass campaign ofsterilization and abortioniii—caused an uproar amongthe population and ignited strong resistance, espe-cially in China’s vast rural areas. This resistance causedpolicymakers to reevaluate their decision to imposethe one-child policy nationwide. In 1984 and againin 1986, major policy readjustments retreated fromthe “one-size-ﬁts-all” approach and diversiﬁed thepolicy. For example, many rural residents are nowspared from the one-child policy.iv Also, most prov-inces now allow couples in which both spouses are onlychildren to have two children. More recently, severalprovinces have allowed couples in which one spouseis an only child to have two children. By the 1990spopulation control had already become a multipolicyregime (see Fig. 1). Further modifications at locallevels continued to produce numerous categories ofexceptions, such that the policy’s complexity has cometo resemble that of the U.S. tax code.For years urban couples holding a non-agriculturalhousehold registration have been required to adhereto the one-child policy. Consisting of slightly morethan 20 percent of China’s total population, this seg-ment has little choice but to follow the policy, as anunauthorized birth puts at risk a couple’s employ-ment, housing allotment, and other state-controlledresources.v A few exceptions exist for urban residents,mostly for couples whose ﬁrst child is physically hand-icapped, couples in a remarriage who do not each havea child from the previous marriage, or members ofethnic minorities.Analysis from the East-West Center2Even the architectsof the one-childpolicy anticipatedthat it would change
The majority of Chinese reside in rural areas, andfertility policies covering them fall into three broadcategories. In the ﬁrst category are the six provincesor municipal regions directly under the central gov-ernment’s jurisdiction—Congqing, Jiangsu, Sichuan,Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin—some of which con-tain signiﬁcant urban centers. All couples are underthe one-child policy unless they belong to an ethnicminority or live in an exceptionally impoverishedarea. The combined population in these rural areas(with their urban cores) and strictly urban areas thatare under the one-child policy constitutes about 35percent of China’s total population. A larger shareof the population, about 54 percent, falls into a sec-ond category, the “1.5 children” policy. This policy,a product of compromise acknowledging Chinesecouples’ strong desire to have at least one son, stipu-lates that couples whose ﬁrst child is a daughter areallowed a second birth. The third and smallest cate-gory, accounting for about 11 percent of the total,lives in areas that allow a second or even a third child.These are mostly areas populated by ethnic minorities.The result of the varying fertility policies is aneffective national fertility policy of 1.47 children percouple. Since only about half of the couples in the “1.5children” policy areas meet the requirements to havea second child, the effective coverage of the one-childpolicy is about 63 percent of the total population.In other words, nearly two-thirds of all Chinese cou-ples are under the jurisdiction of the one-child policy.viIs the One-Child Policy Necessaryfor Population Control?Has the one-child policy been necessary for control-ling China’s population growth? Proponents of thepolicy initially rationalized it as an emergency controlmeasure, anticipating the large number of births ex-pected from the baby boomers of the 1960s. Theseproponents have long claimed that without the pol-icy, fertility would have been high or at least wouldnot have declined to the current low level. Such think-ing still garners wide currency today and is used asan argument for continuing the one-child policy.But the argument, while appealing, cannot be veri-fied in the absence of evidence from an alternativepolicy implemented at the same time and within thesame national context.Counterarguments, backed by empirical evidence,question the claim that the one-child policy hasbeen necessary. Critics point out that fertility levelsdropped by more than 50 percent in the 1970s, from5.8 children per woman in 1970 to 2.7 in 1979, inthe absence of a policy that forbade couples to havea second child. This decline was associated with thegovernment’s “later-longer-fewer” policy; that is, laterAnalysis from the East-West Center3The policy’scomplexity hascome to resemblethat of the U.S.tax code1.0 – 1.31.3 – 1.51.5 – 2.02.0 – 3.5Missing ValueFig. 1. Number of children per couple allowed by China’s multipolicy fertility regime
marriage, longer birth interval, fewer births. Criticsalso note that during the 1980s, when the one-childpolicy was then recently implemented, fertility levelhardly changed.vii It was not until the 1990s, in con-junction with institutional changes associated withmarket reforms, that fertility further declined.These sweeping changes in China’s economic sys-tem and social values may have been more importantthan the stringent population policy in furtheringfertility decline in the 1990s. First, in the decadesfollowing the imposition of the one-child policy,collective farming was dissolved in the countryside andgovernment-guaranteed employment and housingbeneﬁts were phased out in the cities. These changesalone removed the economic security that once low-ered the cost of childbearing and encouraged higherfertility rates. Second, new economic opportunities andrising incomes led aspiring young Chinese to directtheir energy away from marriage and childbearing.Age at ﬁrst marriage among women, for instance, rosefrom 22 to 24 in the 1990s; this is clear evidence ofchanging demographic preferences not affected by theone-child policy. Third, parents must invest more intheir children’s education due to market demand foreducated labor and intensified competition in thelabor market for better employment. This increase inthe cost of childrearing may well have further damp-ened reproductive desires. Since the late 1990s, somecouples entitled to have a second child have volun-tarily foregone their birth quotas, being content withonly one child.High CostsMany of the predicted negative social and economicconsequences of the one-child policy have material-ized. Because of the policy, China faces more serioussocial and economic consequences than do othernations experiencing rapid fertility decline. In addi-tion to the common problem of rapid populationaging, China’s problems include a number of socialconsequences not seen elsewhere: a lopsided sex ratioin infants and young children, increased female in-fant and child mortality rates, and the collapse ofthe government birth reporting system.Rapid increase in population aging. The unusuallyrapid fertility decline in China has produced a rapidlyaging population—one that is expected to becomedisproportionately older well into this century. Rapidaging, in the absence of a standard of living and asocial safety net comparable to other aging societies,has also earned China the distinction of a countrythat has become old before it has become rich. Twodecades ago, when concerns about population agingwere ﬁrst aired, the population was still growing atabout 1.5 percent annually. The share of China’spopulation aged 60 and above was only 7.6 percent,and those aged 65 and above constituted only 4.9percent of the total population. Today, the popula-tion growth rate is roughly half what it was 20 yearsago. China’s 2000 census revealed that the propor-tion of elderly had risen to 10.5 percent for thoseaged 60 and above, and 7.1 percent for those 65and above. While the percentage of the populationover 60 is only half that of western industrializednations, China’s per capita income is one quarter toone ﬁfth that of these same countries. There is littledoubt that China’s aging process will continue toaccelerate; this means that China is entering a newhistorical era.As a result of the 1970s fertility decline and 25years of the one-child policy, urban Chinese coupleswill experience a far more serious aging scenario thanrural Chinese (see Fig. 2). Today, 10 percent of theurban population is already aged 65 and over. Inslightly more than a decade, this will rise to 15 per-cent, a level of aging comparable to that in the moredeveloped world now. In 20 years, by 2025, the aginglevel among urban Chinese will reach 20 percent, alevel found today only in Japan and Italy. Assumingfertility rates stay at the current level among urbanChinese, about 1.3 children per couple, 35 percentof the urban population will be aged 65 and olderby 2050. While small in proportion to China’s totalpopulation, urban elderly still account for a largenumber of people. They were 20.6 million in theyear 2000 and will increase to 34.1 million by 2015,45.6 million by 2025, and 55.9 million by 2050.viiiAlarmingly, this aging trend will continue well intothe next century.Analysis from the East-West Center4Changes in theeconomic systemand social valuesmay have beenmore importantthan populationpolicy in loweringfertility
In rural areas, the level of population aging willlag behind that in urban areas by more than a decade.It will not be until 2033 that the population aged65 and over reaches 15 percent. If fertility and mor-tality levels stay as assumed, population aging for themajority of the population will level off at about 20percent by the middle of this century. The number ofthe elderly in rural China, nevertheless, will still bestaggering. It was 67.9 million in 2000 and will growto 93.3 million by 2015, 128.2 million by 2025, and229.1 million by 2050. In rural and urban areas com-bined, the number of those aged 65 and above willbe more than 125 million within a decade, and couldreach as high as 285 million by 2050.How prepared is China to cope with such a rapidlyaging population? Prior to the modern fertility decline,elderly parents relied almost exclusively on their chil-dren for support. The one-child policy began whenthe centrally planned economy was still in place;therefore, even though the policy removed or reducedthe traditional source of support for elderly parents,they could at least count on communes in the coun-tryside and work organizations in urban areas forsome economic, though not social or psychological,support. With China’s revamping of its economic sys-tem societal support has largely disappeared. Welfareprovisions from communes and work organizationsare a thing of the past. A small portion of the urbanpopulation has been incorporated under an emerg-ing socialized pension system, but critics believe thissystem to be seriously underfunded. One estimate putsthe liabilities of the program equal to 125 to 150percent of current GDP. Furthermore, the majorityof China’s elderly reside in the countryside, and evensuch an underfunded social scheme is beyond theirreach. Recently the government initiated an experi-mental program that provides a monthly subsidy ofapproximately US$6 to poor rural elderly with onlyone child. While this costs the government and tax-payers hundreds of millions, it can hardly be consid-ered substantial help, let alone a substitute for thesupport of children.Escalating imbalanced sex ratio. With the adoptionof the one-child policy, an imbalance in the sex ratioat birth began a rise that has become increasingly lop-sided over the past two decades. This is due largely tothe gender-speciﬁc fertility policy that permits ruralcouples with a firstborn daughter to have a secondchild. In 1982, the sex ratio at birth was 108.5 boysto every 100 girls, already above the normal range of104–106 boys per 100 girls. After 1982, China’s ﬁg-ures rose sharply to 114.1 boys per 100 girls in 1990,and 117.1 to 100 in 1995. The most recent censusAnalysis from the East-West Center5By 2050the number ofelderly in ruralChina could bestaggering0%5%10%15%20%25%30%35%40%2000 2005 2010 2015 2020 2025 2030 2035 2040 2045 2050YearRural China Urban ChinaPercentofPopulationAged65andOver20.667.993.334.1128.245.6229.155.9Population in MillionsFig. 2. Aging trend for urban and rural China, 2000–2050
reported a sex ratio at birth of 119.2 boys to every100 girls in 2000, suggesting over 10 percent excessmale births in the population.The policy contributes to an imbalanced sex ratioin several ways. Some parents, who have not yet hada son or achieved a balanced sex composition amongoffspring, resort to sex selective abortion in order tohave the child of the desired sex. At the same time,some girls are uncounted or “missing” because theyare hidden by their parents from government ofﬁ-cials and therefore are unrecorded in censuses andsurveys. ix The 2000 census, for instance, revealedmore surviving individuals aged 10–14 in 2000 thanthose counted at ages 0–4 in the 1990 census. It alsoshowed a more balanced sex ratio among the samebirth cohorts as time passed.xAnother possible explanation for the skewed sexratio is the extent to which baby girls are victimsof infanticide, abandonment, or deliberate neglect.Over the past two decades, male infant mortality ratesdeclined by a large margin, roughly 40 percent; incomparison, female infant mortality rates declinedby only about 15 percent, with all the reduction oc-curring in the 1990s. Prior to the one-child policy,female infant mortality rates had been declining inChina since at least the mid-1930s. By 1982, themortality rate for females was lower than that formales, similar to most populations without deliber-ate practices of gender discrimination against femalebabies. However, in 1990 and 2000, the pattern wasreversed. Observed excess female mortality at youngages has been on the rise ever since the implementa-tion of the one-child policy. The difference betweenthe observed and expected female-to-male infant mor-tality ratio increased from around 10 percent in thelate 1970s to as high as 60 percent in the mid-1990s.xiMoreover, female excess mortality is not conﬁned toinfants, but extends to children 1–4 years old as well.This injustice is the most glaring form of inequalityfemales experience in China and can be attributedpartly to the country’s birth control policy.The shortage of girls has led to the reappearanceof a social phenomenon that was largely eradicatedunder Chinese socialism: marriage as a marker ofsocial status and social stratiﬁcation. Bride shortageis not new. Historically, between 5 to 10 percent ofChinese men lived their lives as bachelors, largely dueto the practice of female infanticide and neglect.xiiBut by the mid-1900s China began to defeat this dis-crimination and saw decades of rising male marriagerates, during which both the proportion of male bach-elors and the link between social status and the like-lihood of marriage declined. However, as brides nowgrow scarce, male marriage once again becomes anindicator of social privilege. In the early 1980s, 15percent of illiterate or semi-illiterate male peasantsat age 40 were still single, whereas among university-educated men the number was only 0.5 percent. In1990, the share of bachelors among the rural poorat age 40 rose to 19 percent. By 2000, among ruralmales with the least schooling, 27 percent at age 40were unmarried, while nationally that ﬁgure was only4 percent. In the same age group, only 1 percent ofmen with a college degree or higher remained bach-elors. This concentration of unmarried males amongthe rural poor was possibly caused by fertility de-cline in the 1960s and 1970s that resulted in suc-cessively smaller cohorts of brides in comparison togrooms; the situation may well grow worse as cohortswith increasingly imbalanced sex ratios reach theirmarriage age.Political costs. To implement a fertility policy thatgoes against the preferences of the majority of Chi-nese couples, which is two children per couple, thegovernment has paid a dear cost politically. In the1980s, it was common to hear reports of violentclashes between local birth control ofﬁcials and peas-ants that involved the conﬁscation or destruction ofproperty and physical abuse. Forced sterilization andinduced abortion invited not only hostility and resis-tance from the population, but also sharp criticismfrom the international community. Such physicalabuses continued into the early 1990s but had largelydisappeared by the end of the decade. In the effortto crack down on the physical abuses, China shiftedthe focus of its birth control program away from ad-ministrative coercion toward encouraging voluntarycontraception and providing couples with a widerselection of contraceptive methods.xiii This newAnalysis from the East-West Center6As brides growscarce, malemarriage onceagain becomesan indicator ofsocial privilege
program orientation may have helped to ease thetension between birth control ofﬁcials and citizens.Open opposition to the policy has turned intosubversive resistance. For example, citizens and localofﬁcials have coordinated efforts to conceal births inthe countryside. In the 1980s demographic behaviorcould be measured with great detail and accuracy;but by the 1990s, the birth reporting system had col-lapsed. Few could trust demographic data, especiallyfertility data, collected and released by governmentagencies. Studies report that as many as 30 percentof births were not counted by the family planningregistration system in some locales in the early 1990s.Problems in birth reporting and registration started tospread to other demographic data-gathering activities,including population censuses, annual populationsurveys, and special fertility surveys. Not long into the1990s, the two main agencies responsible for collect-ing fertility information, the State Family PlanningCommission and the National Bureau of Statistics,simply gave up their attempt to provide reliable anddetailed information on fertility. Instead, fertilitywas reported to be “around 1.8 births per woman”for years.China’s most recent census conﬁrmed the suspi-cion that reliable birth reporting is no longer possible.The reported total fertility rate, a measure of lifetimefertility assuming a woman follows current age-spe-ciﬁc fertility rates, was only 1.22, way below the re-placement level of 2.1 children per woman. This levelAnalysis from the East-West Center7The Original Argument For, and the Current Argument Against, the One-Child PolicyThe argument for adopting the one-child fertility policy was made to the Chinese people in An Open Letter toMembers of the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese Communist Youth League on Controlling Population Growth,published by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on September 25th, 1980. The reasons putforward there can be summarized as follows:Rapid population growth results in difﬁculties in providing food, clothing, housing, transportation, education,medical care, and employment for the population. More speciﬁcally, rapid population growth:• increases consumption and reduces capital accumulation and investment;• makes it hard to increase the standard of living for the population;• means even smaller per capita arable land and reduced food supply;• results in overuse of natural resources including energy, water, and forests; and• aggravates environmental pollution and worsens the production and living conditions of the population.In the 25 years since the Central Committee’s Open Letter, the social, economic, and environmental context haschanged. Arguments for changes to the one-child policy make the following points:• Fertility has declined to below replacement level.• Negative consequences of the policy have emerged and are increasing.• Chinese couples show a strong and persistent preference for two children.• The government’s birth control program has been successfully re-oriented toward service.• With the shift in the locus of economic planning from the state to the family, the government is no longer themain guarantor of food, shelter, education, and employment opportunities.• Rising consumption is no longer a concern but is actually desired as a way to generate market demand andto propel further economic growth.• Capital accumulation and investment come from multiple sources and their shortage is no longer a concern.• Though the gap between the richest and poorest sectors of society has broadened, the overall standard ofliving for the Chinese population has increased rapidly.• China does not face a food supply problem.• New energy resources are being created and utilized, including increased imports from overseas.• Awareness of environmental protection is on the rise and new measures are being taken to reduce pollution.
rivals those of Italy and Japan, whose fertility levels,not much above 1.0, are the lowest in the world.To continue a birth control policy that demandsthe sustained cooperation and sacriﬁce of many cou-ples, the government has required an increasinglylarge amount of ﬁnancial and organizational resources.Government budget allocation to birth control pro-grams increased 3.6 times in the 1990s alone, from1.34 billion yuan in 1990 to 4.82 billion in 1998—a rate of increase faster than that for economic con-struction or national defense.xiv According to the Min-istry of Finance, the per capita input has increased inrecent years from 2.64 yuan in 1995 to 8.93 yuan in2002 at the central government level. This amountmay represent only a small portion of all governmentexpenditures on birth control, since programs at locallevels are ﬁnanced by fees imposed on peasants andindirect contributions from rural enterprises andurban work organizations.Over the life of the one-child policy, China hasalso created one of the fastest-growing bureaucraticsectors in its reform era: an army of birth controlofﬁcials. In 1980, the year the one-child policy wasannounced, China had about 60,000 full-time per-sonnel working on birth control down to the level oftownships and urban neighborhoods. By 1995, thisnumber rose to over 400,000, nearly a sevenfold in-crease. While most government ministries were re-quired to reduce the number of employees by half inthe late 1990s, the birth control planning system wasable to get away with a cut of only a quarter, keeping300,000 on the government payroll. Again, this num-ber represents only a portion of the organizationalresources devoted to birth control. China’s FamilyPlanning Association claims a membership of 92 mil-lion, organized into more than a million branches.Birth control policy requires the full attention of theParty and government organizations at all levels, notjust those directly involved in implementing the pol-icy and in providing services. Where fertility does notreach the stipulated low level, local ofﬁcials must spenda substantial amount of their time on the issue, asmeeting birth control goals is a major criterion usedin evaluating their performance and greatly affectstheir political careers.Time to Change?Few believe that China’s current fertility policy, espe-cially the one-child component, should be kept inperpetuity. The real questions are of how and whento phase out the old policy and implement a new one.Conditions for change. Several conditions are nowin place for China to start phasing out the one-childpolicy: low fertility; a new economic environment;a strong and persistent preference for two childrenamong the Chinese population; and the recent suc-cess in reorienting the government’s birth controlprogram away from coercion and toward service.The population growth rate in China has alreadydeclined to a very low level, a level that perhaps theambitious policymakers two-and-a-half decades agodid not envision. Despite a lack of reliable birth re-porting statistics, evidence from multiple sourcespoints to the same conclusion: fertility among Chi-nese couples declined further in the 1990s. Even afteradjusting for possible underreporting, Chinas currentfertility level is likely around 1.5 to 1.6 children percouple, substantially below the replacement level, andat a level that promises net reduction in populationsize in the long run.xvNo one in China could have predicted 25 yearsago that the planned economy would soon becomehistory and that the family, not the government,would again be the locus of economic planning. Thisfundamental shift, along with rapidly increasing in-comes and changing aspirations, provides a newframework within which the Chinese plan their eco-nomic, social, and reproductive lives. In contrast tothe days under the planned economy system—whenfood, shelter, and employment came from the gov-ernment or the collective—parents now must planmore carefully for their childbearing, as they will beassuming the costs of their reproductive decisions.Despite fluctuations in the fertility level and astringent policy imposed by the government, Chinesecouples’ preferred number of children has changedlittle over the last quarter century (see Fig. 3). Only inthe late 1990s was there a modest change toward apreference for fewer children, but this was also withinAnalysis from the East-West Center8Between 1980 and1995 the number ofpersonnel workingfull time on birthcontrol increasednearly sevenfold
the context of the new economic changes.xvi Numer-ous surveys in various locales reveal the same thing:most couples would be happy with two children and,for some of them, having a son is critically important.Having a son may serve an emotional or spiritualpurpose for many Chinese families; and for thoseliving in the countryside, the son is also counted asan extremely important source of labor and lifelongsupport. These largely consistent survey numbersshow that the government’s one-child fertility policyis in direct conflict with the desires of the people.This also shows that the two-decade long policy hasfailed to alter core convictions among most Chinesecouples regarding the ideal number of children fora family. Not only would the population embracea policy allowing two children per couple, but thismodiﬁcation would ease the governmental burdenof policing birth control. A policy that is consistentwith the wishes of the population would be easier toimplement and would drastically reduce the politicaland organizational costs of policy maintenance.One of the most signiﬁcant changes in China’s of-ﬁcial birth control program is its reoriented approachto program implementation. Though it still requirescouples to limit the number of births, it has departedfrom an earlier approach that relied almost exclusivelyon administrative coercion. Since the mid-1990s theprogram has shifted its focus to providing client-centered health services. These changes culminatedin 2002 with China’s first Population and FamilyPlanning Law, making coercion in birth control acriminal offense.xvii The abatement in administrativecoercion has not resulted in any increases in fertility,but has met with wide acceptance and broad supportamong the population, including local ofﬁcials. Thesuccess of China’s population control in the last sev-eral decades and recent changes in its birth planningprograms in the late 1990s have put the country ina good position to initiate policy changes. Such suc-cess should lend confidence to the Chinese govern-ment regarding its ability to change the fertility policy.Window of opportunity. If China is going to phaseout its one-child policy, when should it do so? Bu-reaucratic inertia and political caution would post-pone the change for as long as possible, perhaps onlyafter the crisis escalates further. But Chinese demo-graphic proﬁles show that a further delay will resultin higher long-term costs; indeed changes must bemade within the next 10 years if China is to avertgreater hardship.Within the next decade, China will see its last sub-stantial labor force increase. Driven by past demo-graphic forces, new entrants to the labor force, asrepresented by the number of people reaching ages20 to 24, will show a steady increase. With an ex-panding economy, these new entrants will be easilyabsorbed. Their entrance will help support the elderly,whose number is on the rise but whose percentage ofthe population is still moderate, below 10 percent.By 2015, the demographic proﬁle for China will bequite different. While population aging will be muchmore prominent, the annual supply of new labor willstart to decline sharply, due to the low fertility ofthe 1990s. China will enter a long period of demo-graphic crossover: a consistently declining new laborsupply coupled with a consistently rising elderly pop-ulation. Once the labor shortage becomes a seriousconcern, as it may well be in 10 years, it will be atleast 10 years too late to do anything. Though nopolicy change now can reverse the arrival of this demo-graphic crossover, an early departure from the one-child policy and a gradual increase in fertility couldhelp to lighten population aging pressure 20 to 30years from now. Phasing out the policy within thenext ﬁve years could result in a much more favorableAnalysis from the East-West Center900.511.522.51982–85 1992 1997 2001Urban RuralIdealNumberofChildrenFig. 3. How many children do Chinese women prefer?No longer servedby the plannedeconomy, parentsare assumingthe costs of theirreproductivedecisions
demographic trajectory (see Fig. 4). In this scenario,the population would peak at around 1.45 billion andstay near that level thereafter. The maximum per-centage of people 65 and over would be 21 percentby mid-century. The number of elderly women withonly one child to support them would peak at 30percent in 2040 and then gradually decline.If China does not alter the one-child policy, itsfuture will look quite different. Assuming no changein the fertility policy and reasonable mortality declinesfor the near future, the population will reach its peaksize in 20 years—1.37 billion in 2025. After thatpoint, the population will start to shrink. At the sametime, China’s aging process will accelerate, with theshare of its population aged 65 and over rising to 14percent in 2025, 20 percent in 2035, and more than24 percent in 2050 (reaching a peak of more than 28percent in 2064). By 2040, 40 percent of all Chinesefemales age 60 and above will have only one child,and by 2050, this number will increase to 50 percent.With only one child, these elderly women will face asevere lack of familial support during their last years.Political choices and lessons. Changing a fertilitypolicy that has been part of the core national agendafor the past quarter century will not be easy. It willrequire political courage and wisdom. China’s recentdemographic history contains several cautionary tales.In 1980, the same year that the one-child policy wasimplemented, China relaxed its strict control overmarriage age, allowing couples to marry according tolegal ages that were lower than those required by thepopulation control policies of the late 1970s. As youngcouples rushed to marry, fertility also increased, pro-ducing a small baby boom of ﬁrst births. Then again,in 1984, when a correction of the one-child policyallowed couples in some areas to have two children,families rushed to have the second child. This causednot only a rise in fertility, but also confusion and chaosin birth control program implementation at locallevels. Some local birth control ofﬁcials even experi-enced retaliation or death threats for their participa-tion in implementing the one-child policy and forcedsterilizations and abortions. With these experiencesin mind, policymakers are understandably concernedabout a potential baby boom resulting from signs ofa changing fertility policy.Recent Chinese history, however, also offers numer-ous clues as to how changes can be made successfully.The most important economic and political changein Chinas recent history—abandoning the plannedeconomy—began with experiments in poor ruralAnalysis from the East-West Center100204060801001201401601982 1987 1992 1997 2002 2007 2012 2017 2022 2027 2032 2037 2042 2047 2050YearNumberReachingAge20–24(millions)0.0%5.0%10.0%15.0%20.0%25.0%PercentofPopulationAged65andOverPop 20–24 Pop 65+ if policy changes Pop 65+ if no change in policyFig. 4. Divergent demographic paths in China: labor and elderly, 1982–2050In 10 years whenthe labor shortagebecomes a seriousconcern, it will be 10years too late to doanything about it
areas and within areas designated as Special EconomicZones. Contracting land to rural families in the late1970s provided the incentive necessary to increaseagricultural output and raise the living standard forfarmers. Policies allowing foreign investment andprivate ownership in Special Economic Zones in theearly 1980s brought vitality and economic growththat would not have been possible under the social-ist planned economic system. Similarly, the successfulreorientation of China’s birth control program fromadministrative coercion to better service was alsodue to lessons learned in initial experiments. Thesechanges started in a select number of areas, underthe close guidance and monitoring of China’s recentlyrenamed National Population and Family PlanningCommission. Within ﬁve years, the new approach wasadopted all over China. There is no reason to believepolicymakers would not want to beneﬁt from theseexperiences in returning the rights of demographicdecision making to the family and the individual.After 25 years and with more than 60 millionsingle children already born, the feared consequencesof an unprecedented policy have not only come truebut have exceeded initial expectations. The one-childpolicy may have contributed to reducing the num-ber of births annually, but most of that reduction isconcentrated in China’s urban population—a minor-ity of the total population. Notwithstanding all thebeneﬁts derived from the policy, the costs associatedwith it have become apparent and are rising. If prop-erly executed, a change toward a policy that allowscouples the choice of having two children will notlead to uncontrollable population growth. Instead,it could help meet the fertility desires of most; avoideven more serious demographic and social conse-quences than those already emerging; and relievethe government’s burden of funding and enforcingan unpopular policy.A central difference between production of indus-trial or agricultural goods and population reproduc-tion lies in the length of the production cycle. Theresults of a change to production policies for materialgoods can be seen within one year, even within weeksor months; but the consequences of population re-production may only show up decades in the future.Today’s elderly were born over half a century ago, andworkers of today’s labor force were born two decadesago or earlier. Demographic decision making bearslong-term consequences.While China’s leaders have assumed that the pop-ulation, like the economy, needs to be planned andproduced in balance, they have not accounted for therole of individual volition and consent in human re-production. A government can pass rules to forbidor restrict certain human behaviors that have demo-graphic consequences, but often such political actionsare far more successful in restricting population growththan in inducing it. Whereas numerous examples canbe cited for the success of modern states in popula-tion control by reducing fertility, no government hasyet succeeded in raising fertility once it has declinedto the replacement level or below. People simply can-not be forced to have children.With no open protests and reduced incidencesof violent clashes between government ofﬁcials andpeasants, Chinese politicians may believe that theChinese people have acquiesced to the one-child pol-icy and that it can continue for years. Risks involvedin changing the policy also serve as disincentives to anypoliticians who are entertaining the idea of change.Yet given the long-term and voluntary nature of pop-ulation reproduction and the clear negative conse-quences associated with the one-child policy, timeis not on the side of those who would avoid change,leaving the problem to the next generation. History, inthis case, will not be kind to those who procrastinate.Analysis from the East-West Center11The fearedconsequences ofan unprecedentedpolicy have notonly come truebut have exceededexpectationsNotesi A prime example of such views can be found in Song Jian and YuJingyuan. 1985. Renkou kongzhilun [Population Control Theory].Beijing: Kexue chubanshe. They argue in the introduction of theirbook that population control is not just a matter for economicdevelopment, but also affects resources, environment, and thesurvival of the human race.ii Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. September1980. An Open Letter to Members of the Chinese Communist Partyand Chinese CommunistYouth League on Controlling Population Growth.iii Hardee-Cleaveland, Karen and Judith Banister. 1988. “FertilityPolicy and Implementation in China, 1986–88.” Population andDevelopment Review 14(2): 245–286.