Will China abandon the one-child policy?

September 19, 2013 by Timothy Beardson

Recent speculation suggests that the one-child policy will soon end. Intruding deeply into intimate family issues, it has been described by Dr Therese Hesketh, the noted specialist on Chinese fertility rates, as “one of the most controversial social policies ever implemented”.
Beijing believes this policy has averted 400m births and has also stated that the population avoidance is a major contribution towards mitigating climate change.
The policy arrived in 1979 after a successful voluntary programme had already reduced the birth rate by half. This policy was both mandatory and carried severe penalties for infraction. Moreover, it has been accompanied by well-reported instances of forcible abortion, sterilisation and compulsory adoption of extra children.
The authors of the policy were scientists with little awareness or empathy for what was then an overwhelmingly rural and – despite the recent Cultural Revolution – in many respects traditional society.
China’s population growth is slowing, evidenced most clearly from the reducing additions to the workforce each year. For example, between the early 1970s and 2010 the annual number of births in China fell by 40 per cent. It is also widely appreciated that the population is ageing rapidly. From 2010 to 2030 the over-65s will triple from over 100m to over 300m. The number of elderly to be supported by the working population is exploding. It is increasingly being suggested that this would be a good time to end the policy and give a boost to population growth.
However, there are problems with ending the policy. Local governments are notoriously short of money and resort to many activities to improve the situation. They generate substantial income from fines on families which exceed their quota. Just ten provinces last year reported their fines, which totalled $1.6bn. Many refuse to divulge figures and data are often said to be under-stated to mask corrupt practices. Furthermore, the family planning authority employs 500,000 staff whose jobs would be prejudiced by ending the policy.
If the policy ceased now, we should be cautious in estimating the results. Any nation’s demography is an individual plant with its own characteristics and impervious to short-term adjustments.
In East Asia in particular, from Japan to Singapore, we have been seeing a long term fall in the birth rate. China’s continuing birth rate reduction since 1979 is not the result of the one-child policy. The birth rate has fallen pari passu with its regional neighbours which have no such policy.
The predominant recent influences on the East Asian birth rate have been broad social changes such as urbanisation, where property is more expensive and thus smaller and where there is less need to till rural land, more women in the work force and later marriages.
Those who expect a change in China’s legislation to unleash a tidal wave of births overlook the broader societal changes arising from economic growth, modernisation and urbanisation. Furthermore, having reduced the number of births since the early 1970s by 40%, any increased procreation comes from a much-diminished base.
By the late 2020s, experts forecast the overall population will peak at about 1.4bn and then fall. Views vary on the extent of the fall. The UN, which tends to be sensitive to the views of national governments, forecasts a fall of one-third by the end of the century to about 950m. Other, more independent, forecasts show ranges of falls up to approaching two-thirds, which could indicate a population of maybe as low as 575m by 2100. All expect a major population reduction.
Projections from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna of a fall only to 850-857 million by 2100 are based on longevity of 90-120 years. Such numbers are based on adding two years to lifespan every decade. However, the last 20 years have undershot that target. Existing levels of air pollution are suspected of generating the “relatively anaemic growth in life expectancy” thus overwhelming such population supports. Chinese leaders have observed that the environment continues to deteriorate. This increases the chance of lower population numbers by 2100.
The most cautious population estimates are from Ebenstein and Jennings in 2008 and were based on China’s total fertility rate (TFR) in 2004 of 1.45. They gave three scenarios for China’s population in 2100. The first was predicated on an immediate scrapping of the one-child policy and an unlikely reversion to a national TFR of 2.1 which is the “replacement rate” by 2010. This would lead to a population somewhat below 960m by 2100. It did not happen.
Their second projection “assumes a phased-in increase in the TFR, reaching the replacement rate of 2.1 in 2030”. This would produce an estimated population in 2100 of about 700m. Well, from a TFR of 1.45 in 2004, there was an increase in the subsequent 11 years to an estimated 1.55 in 2013. However, to reach 2.1 by 2030 requires the annual increase in the next 17 years to be ten times faster. This looks arithmetically unlikely and goes against anecdotal evidence of declining interest in raising children.
Their third option is that TFR remained stable at 1.45 and leads to a collapse in population to around 550m by 2100. That didn’t happen either.
Looking at the modest increase in TFR since 2004 and the apparent current disinterest in procreation, it seems as if – at the moment – a reasonable expectation for an estimated end of the century population might be 575m.
As the one child policy did not itself reduce the birth rate, so its abolition should not increase it. And, we should not expect any quick fixes for China’s about-to-contract-sharply overall population.

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