China’s one-child policy reversal: Too little, too late

November 2, 2015, 5:13 PM UTC
Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping
Photograph by Lintao Zhang—Getty Images

The best thing one can say about the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) recent decision to scrap its one-child policy is that China’s rulers finally came to their senses and had enough courage to confront the disastrous legacy left by their predecessors.

While we should all breathe a sigh of relief that Chinese President Xi Jinping has enough political will to end a coercive scheme to re-engineer human society, we need to recognize that abolishing this hare-brained policy now is too little, too late.

Had one of Xi’s predecessors possessed the same guts or clout to do the same, China would not have been trapped in its currently dire demographic spiral. Aside from its well-publicized, brutal enforcement over the last three-and-a-half decades, the one-child policy has almost certainly pushed China past the demographic point of no return.

Compared with countries in its income group (the middle fifth of all the countries in the world), China’s crude birth rate of 12 (the number of live births per 1,000 people each year) in 2013 is significantly lower than the group’s average of 19. In fact, China’s crude birth rate is comparable to much wealthier countries such as France (12) and Canada (11), and lower than Australia (13) and the United States (13). Even Russia, which is said to be on its way to national extinction because of its low fertility, has a higher crude birth rate (13) than China. International experience shows that few countries have succeeded in raising their low birth rates once they fall to China’s level.

China’s official projections of the effect of its recent policy change are wildly optimistic. A deputy director of the National Health and Family Planning Commission recently predicted that the number of new live births will reach 20 million in the future because of the abolition of the one-child policy. Since China recorded only 12 million live births in 2013, Beijing apparently expects that allowing a second child alone will produce an additional 8 million new babies each year.

The existing data put a major damper on such hope. According to the Chinese government, 90 million women are eligible to have a second child. But 60% of those women are over 35 years old. Women over 35, who are likely busy pursuing their careers and supporting their existing families, don’t have major incentives to have a second child, even if they are now allowed to.

Two years ago, Beijing relaxed the one-child policy by permitting single-child families to have a second baby. At the time, the government expected that 2 million additional babies would be born because of this policy shift. However, as of the end of September, only 1.76 million couples applied for this privilege, implying an annual increase of roughly 1 million new babies, half of the original projection.

Besides a draconian government policy, many economic factors discourage Chinese families from having a second child. The Chinese state provides insufficient social services, such as childcare, healthcare, and extra-curricular activities, for children. Parents also have to pay for their children’s higher education and contribute to their housing purchases. Since Chinese housing costs are very high (the average cost of a typical apartment is nine times annual household income, compared with less than four times in the U.S.), having an additional child requires bigger space, a daunting economic challenge for most families.


Regrettably, Beijing has announced no complementary policies to encourage families to have a second child. To ensure the success of the change in China’s family planning policy, Xi must pressure the Chinese bureaucracy to come up with a full package of measures that will make it affordable for most Chinese families to have a second child. Without such investment, abolishing the one-child policy will have only a modest impact on improving China’s demographic profile.

Even if the Chinese government can muster the political courage to make such investments, it will be too late to deal with the two horrendous legacies of the one-child policy in the coming two decades. Additional babies born due to the end of the one-child policy will not enter the labor force until well into the 2030s, when China’s demographic profile will likely resemble that of Japan around 2000, with people older than 65 accounting for 18% of the population. Additionally, it will not have much impact on China’s gender imbalance, which is now the most skewed in the world. Chinese census data show 27 million more men than women in the 0-35 age group in 2013. Most of them are condemned to bachelorhood for the foreseeable future.

So this is a bittersweet moment. The Chinese people are finally liberated from an inhumane policy. But they will still suffer from its catastrophic consequences.

Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States

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