China is well known as the most populous country in the world and a country where the government has adopted a one-child policy. The one-child policy is actually not a one-size fits all policy. Furthermore, formulating a good population control policy for China is extremely complex, and there are serious consequences for whatever policy adopted. This article provides some background information on this important issue, and discusses China’s current population control policy, its resultant issues, and potential resolutions.
Some Basic Population Statistics during the First Two Decades of the PRC
The population of China was about 450 million in 1949 (although it is not clear how accurate is this number), and over 1.3 billion today, or tripling in the last 60 years. However, the growth rate has not been constant over that period. Due to a weak Chinese government, imperialism, war, and turmoil in China during the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, China’s population was pretty stagnant during that period. However, things started to change significantly after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. When the first census was taken in modern China in 1953, its population was already 583 million. This rapid increase of almost 30% in four years (although there is some uncertainty on the population of China in 1949) was due to the much lower death rate together with the much higher birth rate after the end of WWII and China’s civil war. In the 1964 census, the population was 695 million, or an increase of almost 20% over the previous 11 years. This was still a large increase, however partially due to the tragic famine of the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1961, this increase was no where as much as the increase during the first few years of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. During the next five years 1964-1969, there was another large increase to about 800 million, or about another 15% increase.
Traditional Factors Driving China’s Population Growth
There were several reasons in traditional Chinese culture resulting in a large number of children. Confucianism believed that many children mean much happiness, and early children means early happiness. Farmers in rural areas needed more hands to work the fields. Keep in mind that even as late as 30 years ago, about 80% of Chinese lived in the rural areas. In traditional Chinese culture, older parents lived with their adult sons and the sons take care of the older parents, while daughters moved away to live with their husbands’ families. This meant that the Chinese wanted more sons (and therefore also more children) as insurance for support when they got old. This was especially important in rural China where there was no pension and no social welfare system to support the older retired farmers, and this is essentially still the case in rural China today.
In addition, Chairman Mao Zedong was in power until near his death in 1976, and Mao not only did not believe in birth control, he encouraged and urged the Chinese people to have lots of children. When Mao died in September 1976, the population of China was about 930 million, which means that the population of China had doubled during the 27 years of 1949-1976. This was one of many mistakes made by Mao.
China’s Population Control Policy
The above factors led to a very rapid increase in China’s population during the first quarter century of the PRC. This, however, does not mean that there was no population policy or campaign whatsoever to limit population growth in China during that period. As a matter of fact, population policies and campaigns had been ongoing in China since the 1950s. Without these policies and campaigns, the population of China would have increased even faster during that period, as evident by the fact that the rate of population growth was already slowing during the latter part of that period.
Nevertheless, the pace of population growth was still very large, and if that rapid pace of increase would continue for the next quarter century or more, China’s population would be so large that it would be impossible to provide enough food and other necessities for everyone, and definitely would not allow the country to raise China’s standard of living significantly. This would lead to massive economic, social, and political problems.
Thus starting in the early 1970s even while Mao was still alive, China was already pushing for fewer children on a voluntary basis. In 1976, around the time of Mao’s death, the cornerstone of China’s birth control program was put into effect: the “Later, Longer, Fewer” policy. This policy encourages couples to get married later, wait longer to have children, and have fewer children. In 1979, this policy got more specific and more stringent and became the “one-child policy” (or 计划生育政策 in Chinese, which means the “policy of birth planning”). Basically it restricts married couples to have only one child, although allowing many exemptions as discussed next.
Many exemptions were provided, or later added. There are also a lot of provincial or regional variations, as implementation and enforcement are done at the provincial or regional levels. Here are several examples of exemptions:
- In accordance with the PRC’s affirmative action policies towards ethnic minorities, all non-Han ethnic groups are subjected to different rules and are usually allowed to have two children in urban areas, and three or four in rural areas.
- Han Chinese living in rural areas are also often permitted to have two children, or if the first child is a girl, then a second child is permitted.
- “Only child” parents are permitted to have two children to account for the fact that such parents do not have siblings to help out or help to support them when they get old.
- A second child is permitted under cases of “practical difficulties,” e.g., when the father is a disabled serviceman.
- If the first child is severely disabled or has deceased, then a second child is permitted.
- Following the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in Sichuan a second child is permitted if the first child was lost in the earthquake.
- Taking all the exemptions into account, China estimates that only approximately 36% of China’s population is currently subject to the one-child restriction.
There are economic dis-incentives for violating the “policy of birth planning.” These dis-incentives include paying a one-time fine, needing to pay tuition for the second child to attend schools, denying health and other social welfare benefits for the second child. The amounts of the dis-incentives are decided by the appropriate provincial or regional authority. Besides economic dis-incentives, coerced or forced abortions or sterilizations may also be imposed, with also variations depending on the province or region. It is the coerced or forced abortions or sterilizations that have caused a lot of objections and controversies regarding human rights both within and outside of China.
Since the introduction of the one-child policy, the fertility rate in China has fallen from about three births per woman in 1980 to below 1.8 births in 2008. Note that the 1980 fertility rate of 3 was already reduced sharply from almost 6 births per woman in 1970 and as high as 7.5 births per woman around 1963. Note that the current Chinese fertility rate of below 1.8 is lower than the fertility rate of 2.05 in the U.S., 1.89 in France, or 1.82 in the United Kingdom.
Factors to Consider and Potential Problems
Formulating a good population control policy for China is extremely complex, and need to factor in many considerations. These include:
- Are there too many mouths to feed in relation to the productivity and wealth of the country?
- Will a large population lead to excessive unemployment?
- Are there or will there be enough productive workers to support industrialization and modernization of China if we curb the population growth too much?
- How seriously will the environment be affected by the large population and industrialization and modernization?
- Are there or will there be too many older and retired people who rely on pensions or government social welfare programs to sustain their livelihood?
- Are there or will there be enough productive workers to generate enough income for the government to support the older and retired people?
- Can some sort of pension or social welfare program be provided to support the people living in the rural areas, with the rural population still representing about 50% of China’s population?
- How to provide variations and flexibility that can accommodate various differences, such as differences with respect to racial minorities?
- How to respect individuals’ human rights and people’s desires to make their own decisions?
- What kinds of economic dis-incentives should be offered to persuade people to follow the population control policy without using more drastic measures such as coerced or forced abortions or sterilizations?
- How should we look upon the issue of population quality? By allowing rural farmers to have more children than the urban residents with higher education and technological skills, are we lowering the overall population quality and make the country less competitive in the modern world of globalization? Or how do we close the gap in educational opportunities between the rural and urban areas?
- How can we end up with approximately equal numbers of boys and girls?
Note that some of the above considerations are on opposite ends of a spectrum. For example, the second and third bullets are opposite end results depending on the population control policy adopted.
Having the one-child policy in existence for 30 years has definitely slowed down the rate of population growth in China. During the last 30 years since the adoption of the one-child policy, China’s population has only grown from approximately 975 millions in 1979 to approximately today’s 1330 millions, or an increase of approximately 36%, as compared to an increase of approximately 100% during the first 27 years of the PRC.
Although controlling China’s huge population growth is a major achievement, the one-child policy has brought about or will bring about several important problems. Among the more obvious ones are:
- With improved economy and healthcare, China during the first 31 years of the PRC has already almost doubled the life span of its citizens from 35 years in 1949 to 68 years in 1980. With people living longer and with fewer births due to the one-child policy, the percentage of older people is increasing rapidly. The percentage of people in China who are over 65 was 7% in 2004, and is projected to increase to 14% in 27 years in 2031. Although increasing the average age of the population is normal as a country undergoes industrialization and modernization due to increased efficiency and the need for fewer workers per task, the rate of increase is occurring much faster in China. For example, such an increase would have taken many European countries 85-115 years. China is the first nation to have to cope with a population that is getting older before it becomes rich. The elderly population is expected to mushroom before the economy and society have the capability to deal with the problem.
An ever increasingly aged population would result in an increasingly larger financial burden on the state to provide pension and social welfare benefits to their senior citizens, while at the same time the number of productive workers is not increasing correspondingly due to the dropping birth rate. This means that the problem will get worse and worse. As an illustration, according to China’s 2000 census, there were 69 million aged 0-4 years old, which is only half of the number aged 10-14 years old.
- As China becomes more industrialized and modernized and becomes an even more important economic player in the globalized world, it will need more and more educated and highly skilled workers and managers to fuel its economic engine. As China expands economically and if its birth rate remains low, China may not have a large enough workforce. If this causes the economy to stagnate and reduces the income of the productive workforce, then it will compound the just-discussed problem of an aging population because their financial support comes at least partially from the income of the productive workforce.
- For the reasons that we discussed earlier in this article with respect to China’s traditional customs, the Chinese favor baby boys over baby girls. This leads to a larger number of boys over girls, due to various actions, such as giving up a girl for adoption, abortion, or even infanticide. The ratio at birth of boys to girls in China was 108.5 in 1982, 110.9 in 1987, 115.6 in 1995, and 116.9 in 2000. This is already resulting in difficulty for young men to find marriage partners, and could lead to various social problems, including psychological problems, sex crimes, as well as other crimes such as run-away brides. These social problems could then lead to economic and political problems.
- Because of the coerced and forced abortions and sterilizations that are often used, the one-child policy has generated a lot of criticisms both from within China and outside of China. This contributes to social and political unrest among the Chinese citizens, and generates international criticisms from outside of China and therefore could weaken China’s reputation and political influence. This policy could also lead to bribes, another undesirable result.
- Many people, although not all, believe that a single child has a higher probability of resulting in a more spoiled and self-centered child. Would this give rise to more social problems as these children become adults?
The above problems associated with China’s one-child policy are so complex that I of course do not claim to be able to offer a solution that can solve all these problems. I do want to offer several general guidelines that could serve as the foundation on which a solution could possibly be built.
- A large-scale and long-term educational campaign that emphasizes the equality of boys and girls, including that daughters, and not just sons, can also take care of and support older parents. Such an educational campaign is going to take many decades to accomplish, because of the long-standing Chinese tradition favoring boys over girls. So one must have faith and patience to carry out this campaign.
- The current retirement age in China is 60 for men and 55 for women (and 50 for lower-level women workers). The reason for such a low retirement age is to open more jobs and keep the unemployment rate from reaching high level. As China’s economy continues to expand and improve and with a low birth rate for several decades, increasing the retirement age may be workable in the foreseeable future, and can help to solve several problems: (1) provide a larger productive workforce to fuel the expanding economic engine, (2) increase the time where the workforce can save and contribute to their pensions, and (3) reduce the time that older people need to rely on their personal savings, pension, and social welfare programs to sustain themselves. Therefore, it may be time to increase the retirement age to 65, for both men and women to be consistent with achieving male-female equality discussed in the previous paragraph.
- Concrete steps must be taken to reduce the reliance of older parents on the financial support from their grown children. That means that personal savings, pensions, and government social welfare programs must be more or less sufficient to sustain retirees. China’s current pension system may already be in the red, and it may be difficult economically to increase the pension in any significant way without making major changes. Nevertheless, something must be done in this area, especially in providing some sort of pension or social welfare programs for the rural population, perhaps by redistributing some of the income that goes to the emerging class of very wealthy people. In addition, perhaps a system that encourages personal savings, something like the 401K plan, can be implemented as China’s economy continues to expand, improve, and the average personal income rises. Depending on the Chinese tax policy, incentives might need to be introduced to encourage people to participate in a 401K-like plan. Achieving more or less financial independence from grown children will be a necessary ingredient to control China’s population growth, although it is an extremely difficult and expensive task to achieve. It is especially difficult and expensive to achieve in the rural areas (where currently about 50% of the Chinese population reside), but it is where this is needed the most. This objective will also take many decades to achieve, and relies on the one hand a continuing expanding Chinese economy, and on the other hand on reducing the gap between the very rich and the very poor.
- The current fertility rate of under 1.8 and the one-child policy should not be sustained. Instead, one should target the fertility rate to be around 2.0 or even slightly above 2.0 to avoid a rapidly aging population and other undesirable consequences of the one-child policy. The target should be two children per family.
- Rely on education and economic dis-incentives, and not coercion and forced abortions and sterilizations, to keep couples from having more than two children. One may question whether such a program can be successful without coercion and forced abortions and sterilizations. Actually there is already historical data that indicates that it could be successful. From 1970 to 1979 before the one-child policy was adopted and before coercion and forced abortions and sterilizations, the total fertility rate had already fallen from 5.9 to 2.9, and it probably would have continued to fall (although at a slightly lower rate) under the voluntary “Later, Longer, and Fewer” policy.
In order for China, being the most populous country in the world, to develop into a rich, industrialized and modernized country, it is crucial that it adopts a good population control policy that can slow down the rapid growth of its population. However, it is not easy to formulate and implement a good policy, because a non-ideal policy could easily give rise to a plethora of undesirable problems. Although China’s one-child policy has achieved the objective of controlling rapid population growth, it has given rise to several undesirable problems, such as a rapidly aging population, an excess of boys over girls, the inability of the productive workforce to support the large older population, and whether there is enough productive workforce to sustain a growing world-class economy. We offer several general guidelines that could serve as the foundation on which a solution could possibly be built. Note that a good solution will require many decades of commitment to achieve, and will rely crucially on a continuing healthy and growing Chinese economy.
 See Kevin Kinsella, “Demographic Dimensions of Global Aging,” Journal of Family Issues 21, no. 5 (Jul. 2000); 541-58.