How China came to regret its one-child policy

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More than 60 years ago, something rare happened in China: More people died than were born.

That estimated one-year drop in population was due to the Great Famine, perhaps the worst human-made catastrophe in history, resulting in the deaths of as many as 45 million people. Combined with a short but drastic drop in the birthrate, China shrank by roughly 700,000 people between 1960 and 1961. Once Chinese leader Mao abandoned the forced industrialization policies that led to the Great Famine, however, China’s fertility rate quickly rebounded and deaths fell, and today more than twice as many Chinese are alive as were in 1961.

But now, for the first time since that year, China’s population is again shrinking. And this time, it’s not likely to rebound — not soon, and perhaps not ever. On Tuesday, the Chinese government reported that 9.56 million people were born in China last year, while 10.41 million people had died. You don’t have to be a demographer to know what that means — all you need to do is subtract.

China may have already lost its position as the world’s most populous country to a still-surging India. While Covid played some role in those numbers — though how much is hard to say, given Beijing’s lack of transparency around the full toll of the pandemic — this isn’t like the early 1960s. China’s population drop isn’t the result of a single, acute crisis, but years of policy decisions and cultural and economic shifts that have led this nation of 1.4 billion people to where it is today: facing an aging and shrinking population for the foreseeable future.

This doesn’t mean that China as a country or as a world power is locked into irreversible decline. What’s happening in China is happening at varying speeds in most countries, as the world — with the exception of still-young regions like sub-Saharan Africa — completes the transition from high fertility to low, with two-thirds of the planet living in nations that do not have enough children to replace their population through reproduction alone.

Many of these demographic forces are positive, the result of economic growth that has given people, especially women, the freedom to live the life they want, including one with fewer or even no children. But it does mean — as Wang Feng, a sociologist at the University of California Irvine who specializes in Chinese demographics, told the New York Times — “in the long run, we are going to see a China the world has never seen.”

As much as China’s aging and eventual shrinking was a demographic inevitability as it became richer and more modern, the particular speed at which that transition is occurring, and the particular challenges that pace will present, are Beijing’s own doing.

In 2015, the Chinese government did something it almost never does: It admitted it made a mistake, at least implicitly.

The ruling Communist Party announced that it was ending its historic and coercive one-child policy, allowing all married couples to have up to two children.

The one-child policy had helped lead to the mother of all demographic dividends, the term for the economist boost created when a country’s birth and death rates both decline. Between 1980 and 2015, China’s working-age population grew from 594 million to a little over 1 billion. China’s dependency ratio — the total young and elderly population relative to the working-age population — fell from over 68 percent in 1980 to less than 38 percent in 2015, which meant more workers for every non-working person.

Giant billboards erected throughout China — like this one seen in Beijing in 1983 — encouraged Chinese couples to have only one child in the modernization drive to limit China’s population to 1.2 billion people by the year 2000.
Bettmann Archive

Having more young workers who had fewer young or old dependents to care for was the fuel in China’s economic rocket engine. But no fuel burns forever, and over the past decade, hundreds of millions of Chinese have hit retirement age, with a plummeting number of young people to replace them. So the slogans went from “Having only one child is good” to “One is too few, while two are just right.”

How did the Chinese people react? Not by having more children. By 2021, China’s total fertility rate (that is, the number of expected births per woman over the course of their reproductive lifetime) had fallen to just 1.15, nearly a full child below the replacement rate of 2.1. (That’s two to replace each parent, plus a slight extra to make up for children who might die before they reach adulthood — demographics is a dismal science.) For the people of China, if not the government, it seems two was not just right.

Total births in China have now fallen for six straight years, and the United Nations’ middle-of-the-road projections find that by the end of the century, the country’s total population will have fallen below 800 million people, a level it hasn’t been since the late 1960s. Unlike then, when the median Chinese was in their highly productive early 20s, that smaller China will be far older.

That’s not, on its face, a bad thing — population aging is a result not just of fewer babies, but of people surviving infancy and childhood at higher rates and living longer lives. (Life expectancy in China has risen from a shocking 33 years in 1960 to 78 today — higher, in fact, than the far richer US.) But with fewer young workers and more elderly dependents, it will be far more difficult to keep China’s economic engine humming. Chinese economic growth in the last three months of the year fell to just 2.9 percent, its lowest record level since Mao’s death in 1976. That was largely a result of the double whammy of months of Covid lockdowns followed by widespread outbreaks when those restrictions were suddenly lifted, but it also presages a broader and longer-term slowdown.

Just about every developed country, the US very much included, will need to grapple with the effects of an aging population, but China faces particular challenges.

For all its power and aggregate wealth — it is by most accounts the world’s second-largest economy — on a per capita basis, it’s still a middle-income country at best. To reach anything like a per capita parity with a country like the UK, let alone the US, would require years more of high-powered economic growth that will be increasingly difficult to pull off in an aging nation. In the end, China could get old before it gets rich.

And if China can’t grow faster, the elderly will bear the brunt of the cost. A 2013 study estimated that nearly a quarter of China’s seniors live below the poverty line, and the country — like many others in East Asia, including richer nations like Japan and South Korea — has little in the way of old-age support. That was less of a problem when older adults could count on being taken care of by their children, but decades of the one-child policy has left an inverted pyramid known as “4-2-1,” with four grandparents and two parents depending on one child.

A girl high-fives her grandfather, who came to pick her up at Kunming Changshui International Airport in southwest China’s Yunnan Province on January 15, as families travel to be with their loved ones amid the Spring Festival travel rush.
Jiang Wenyao/Xinhua via Getty Images

As more and more young Chinese choose to go without children altogether — pursuing the “double income, no kids” lifestyle — more and more elderly Chinese will have no familial support whatsoever, with one survey projecting 79 million childless older adults in China by 2050. And those trends will reinforce each other — younger Chinese are already citing the burden of caring for elderly parents as one reason to have fewer or no children.

It’s worth repeating that this state of affairs was, for the most part, inevitable. The fertility transition — the drastic drop in fertility as countries become richer — is as close to an iron law as demography has. There is no foreseeable situation where China could have developed as it has if its mid-1960s fertility rates of six to seven children per woman had continued, and much of that drop was due to improvements in infant mortality that gave parents confidence their children would live to adulthood.

But while the ultimate destination of a demographic transition may be largely set, how fast you get there matters a lot — and years of the one-child policy, well past the point at which it made economic or demographic sense, have hurt China’s ability to manage that transition.

Beyond ending the one-child policy, the Chinese government has begun offering financial inducements to couples to have more children, following in the footsteps of other countries that have faced demographic deficits.

Shanghai will give mothers 60 days of additional parental leave, while Shenzhen has joined other Chinese cities in giving subsidies — $1,476 in its case — to couples who have a third child. But don’t expect these moves to make a major difference in birth rates. While such financial incentives might prompt couples to have a child earlier than they had planned, there’s little evidence the programs can convince a childless couple to have a kid, or lastingly increase birthrates.

Instead, China will need to focus on increasing worker productivity and the benefits of automation, while improving its social safety net, in order to manage its demographic transition as smoothly as possible. It won’t be easy — while it’s advancing rapidly in AI and its manufacturing know-how is top-notch, one of China’s biggest advantages is still its large pool of young workers. That pool is drying up, though, while the country lacks the resources of already old neighbors like Japan that could help support its growing elderly population.

But a worse outcome might be if China’s authoritarian government tries to compel its citizens to have more children with the same heavy hand it once used to prevent them from doing just that. Already, growing discrimination against China’s LGBTQ citizens is being framed as a response to the country’s supposed demographic crisis.

A better future would be one where Beijing does everything it can to support the demographic choices its citizens want to make — and, in doing so, provides a more solid foundation for those Chinese who actively want to have more children. That will take plenty of work. The rising costs of having a family, the Darwinian competition for educational resources and jobs, and the lingering effects of years of harsh Covid crackdowns have left China’s young people in a state of existential crisis. As one young Shanghai protester told coronavirus workers in a video that went viral last year, “we are the last generation.” It’s up to the Chinese government to ensure that’s not the case.

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