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China's Social Experiment: From One to Two Children?

In recent years, the Chinese government decided to drastically change its population policy, abandoning the one-child policy (Mullen, 2021). After abolishing the latter, from 2016 Chinese families were permitted to have two children, however as of late May 2019, the Chinese Politburo implemented a "one family, three children" policy allowing families, therefore, to have three children (Mullen, 2021). The reason behind such policy changes is that the world's most populous nation's birth rate has drastically decreased. This has had a negative impact on both the economy and the population of China (NBS, 2020). Also, the controversy around the benefits and drawbacks of such family planning policies has not abated yet.

In order to properly understand the motives of Chinese officials implementing the three-child policy, it is essential to capture the turning point in the evolution of birth controlling policies in China. This turning point is considered to be the shift from a one-child to universal two-children policy. It has been found out that due to the one-child policy, China prevented 400 million births which is an unprecedented case in the human history (IOSCPRC, 1995). Professor Peng from Fudan University delivered that this demographic transition to avert the population burst resulted in economic and social consequences, like an aberrant male to female sex ratio, which led to the phenomena of “missing girls” in China (2011). This phenomenon is characterised with female infanticide in the womb or afterbirth and shrinkage of the working class because of rapid population aging (Das Gupta, 2005, p.530; Peng, 2011, p.583.) Therefore, China's social experiment under the auspices of one-child policy and its evolution to the two-child policy will explain current conditions and issues the state is encountering at present (BBC, 2021).

Figure 1: A 1980s propaganda poster for the one-child policy

Currently, the People’s Republic of China continues to be the earth’s most populous country, with over 1.4 billion people (Muschter, 2022). However, it also has one of the world's fastest-aging populations leaving a tremendous burden on the emerging Chinese market (Textor, 2022). According to the annual report issued by the National Bureau of Statistics of China (NBS, 2022), the population growth rate in China has been declining, hitting the lowest natural growth rate in 2021 of 0,34% per thousand (NBS, 2020). The falling rate in demographic growth mainly results as a direct consequence of the one-child policy. However, Chinese officials contended for years that this was a crucial component in the country's economic growth (Huld, 2022).

The history of harsh family planning measures in China dates back to the "Later, Fewer, Longer (LFL)" voluntary birth control program. Crucially, the one-child policy shares the elements with LFL (Jowett, 1984). Chinese state officials adopted the LFL voluntary program as an emergency reaction to the rapid population surge from around 540 million people in 1949 to 820 million people in 1970 (Jowett, 1984, p.158; Whyte, 2016, p.149). It sought to encourage later marriages, longer interval between births, and fewer children among Chinese couples. Although it was officially decreed a voluntary program, couples faced signs of oppression on behalf of state agents who kept meticulous track of data on women's child-bearing age, past births, contraceptive usage, and even menstrual cycles (Whyte, 2016, p.149). Wang Feng, Young Cai and Martin King Whyte from the China Journal were able to prove the precipitous increase in the number of UD insertions, sterilizations, and abortions in the 1970s as, for instance, women who had not received official approval to give birth suffered from harassment to get an abortion (Whyte, 2016, p.149). As a result, China's overall fertility rate fell from 5.7 births per woman in 1969 to 2.9 in 1978 (Cheng&Fang, 2018).

Figure 2: A poster promoting the use of birth control during "Later, Fewer and Longer" program, 1974

Apprehensiveness over the population increase among state officials caused a more aggressive family planning policy. The one-child policy was launched in 1979 to facilitate further population decline (Jowett, 1984, p.157). The one-child policy officially began in 1979 under the authority of Deng Xiaoping and set out to curb the drastic population increase while sustaining economic growth since the conditions of capital, environmental assets, and consumer goods were in limited supply (Jowett, 1984, p.157). It rigidly applied to urban area citizens who formed 20% of the population.The rural residents vigorously resisted against this rule and, as a result, they were allowed to have a second child under the "one-child" policy if the first new-born was a girl (Yi&Fang, 2018). Those couples who still opted to have a second child, so-called violators, faced a system of fines and frequently, forced abortions (Mullen, 2021). If the parent disregarded the fine, the second child would not be able to receive a document that legalized his/her existence and unregistered children would be restricted from accessing basic social services such as healthcare and education (Mullen, 2021).

According to the spokesman of National Health and Family Planning Commission, Mao Qunan, the one-child policy helped to reduce the amount of births in China over the years by “400 million birth numbers” and contributed to stopping a climate change, (Mullen, 2021; IOSCPRC, 1995). Officials additionally deny any violation of human rights labelling these claims as "interfering in the internal affairs". The Chinese government blames outsiders for distorting the idea of a right control of population growth (IOSCPRC, 1995). There are two sides to every story and the previously mentioned reasons led to abolishing one of the most notably controversial policies in human history.

Figure 3: One of the propaganda posters of "ideal" families in the streets of China, 1980s.

As per Wang, Gu, and Cai, the one-child policy did not attain its main objective to deter millions of births, and instead created several short-term and long-term scars on the Chinese economy and society (2012, p.119). The aforementioned scholars state that the statement of preventing 400 million birth numbers remains an unauthentic one as the advocates of this policy distorted the actual numbers; the dynamics in the Chinese population should have been calculated from the 1970s, not from the 1980s (Wang, et al., 2021,p.121). They believe that this is a critical mistake due to the transition in reproduction rates which occurred before the establishment of the one-child policy, during the voluntary campaign of LFL which resulted in a reduction of fertility levels by 2.8 children born per woman in 1979 from 5.8 in 1970. Hence, it only contributed in averting 200 million birth numbers while the rest is a contribution of the LFL program (Feng, et al., 2021.122). As a supportive argument, Hirschman, contributor to the "International Family Planning Perspectives" journal, condemns the necessity of establishing the one-child policy mentioning the example of Thailand (1994, p.83). Thailand had 37 births per 1000 people in 1970, which was more than China’s 33.4 births per 1000 people, and still did not push any compulsory restrictions to prevent rapid population growth (Hirschman, et al.,1994, p.83). Thailand’s fertility rate decreased from more than 6 children per woman to less than 2 children per woman by the 1990s. This only indicates that the fertility rate in China would have fallen considerably, in a similar manner to that of other developing countries (Hirschman, et al.,1994, p.83).

Chinese officials could not ensure the one-child policy's principal goal in family planning, but the policy has ensured negative long-term implications which are still going to be drawn in the upcoming decades. One of the looming issues is negative population growth (CASS, 2019). According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the shrinkage of the Chinese population will start in 2027 right after attaining its spike (n.d., 2019). Data pertaining to China’s population growth in 2015 indicates that the population growth rate reached only 0.4 %, while at the beginning of the 2000s the rate had been fluctuating around 0.7% (Textor, 2021). By 2030, it is expected that China will become the country with the greatest number of elderly population (CNNMoney, n.d). Along with it, between 2015 and 2040, the working-age population is estimated to decrease by, at least, 100 million people. Particularly, a substantial drop is expected in the working-age population under 30, which “may plunge by nearly 30 percent over these years“ (Harjani, 2014).

Figure 4: A couple in China with an only child

Another ongoing issue that can be linked to the one-child policy is a societal preference for male children among Chinese parents leading to a skewed sex ratio, in which, for example, 118 boys were born for every 100 girls in 2005 (UNICEF, 2015). Therefore, there will be a lack of Chinese women to build a family, negatively affecting the birth rates. This will cause a tremendous burden on economic growth, in which a relatively small working population will be the one bearing the cost of pensions (Reuters, 2020). Alone, a grandchild will have to take care of 4 grandparents by 2035 (Reuters, 2020). Regarding the well-being of the Chinese children, Michael Gross, scientific writer in the life and physical science industry 13, introduces the term “little emperors". These are children who are by nature spoiled being the only children in the family (2014). He believes that the generation born during the one-child policy tends to be "less altruistic, less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse and less competitive than the generations born before 1979”.

The aforementioned consequences of the one-child policy resulted in the implementation of the two-child policy in 2016 with the goal of easing the effects of the aging population, bettering the distribution of the Chinese's population age pyramid, and increasing fertility rates (Myers, 2019). Policymakers eased the one-child policy gradually in a three-year period to avoid an expected baby boom. However, the fear over the “baby boom” fell short of expectations, as among the 11 million couples selected only 1.45 million eligible parents applied to a two-child quota (Wang, et al., 2016). Such low indicators were the results of financial concerns to sustain a second child. The couples that did apply were generally those with a higher household income and those who desired to have a son after a girl child (Wang, et al., 2016). Up to this moment, there is an insufficient number of studies done on the effectiveness of the universal two-child policy. However, one thing that can be stated already is the policy’s inability to influence the desired outcomes. According to Li, Zhou, and Jia, the universal two-child policy will have constrained implications on China’s population size and structure (Handong, 2019). As a result of the population prediction model, there will be only 40 million newborns between 2016 and 2050, and the Chinese aging index will only see a minor slowing (Handong, 2019).

Figure 5: China has one of the fastest-growing aging populations in the world.

As stated in the scientific work "Intention among couples in Shanghai under Covid-19”,

Three in ten couples of childbearing age, who originally expressed their intention of becoming pregnant, abondened their pregnancy plans after the COVID-19 outbreak (Chenfeng, etal., 2020).

Since the population growth rate hit the lowest level ever, 0.03%, in 2021, experts say that "we will start to see the population decline in 2022, nine years earlier than expected" (Xie, 2022). Correspondingly, it can be boldly mentioned that the establishment of a universal two-child policy might have temporary improvements in the fertility rate, but the current data confirms that it is inefficient and incapable of reaching the desired outcomes.

The demographic transition to the two-child policy following the one-child policy has left costly scars on Chinese society and economy. China has already started to face sharp drops in fertility rates, a rapidly aging population, and an imbalanced sex ratio. These negative demographic dynamics will put an enormous hindrance on the Chinese economy such as the decline in the labour force supply and an imminent increase in the number of pensions. Scholars highly recommend that the government completely remove any birth restrictions and refrain from family planning as it violates basic principles of human rights (Wang, et al., 2016). The state should instead focus on policy-making to ensure the accessibility of social welfare, as well as improving maternity, paternity, and childcare benefits.


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1 Comment

Enjoyed learning about the origins of China’s population control policies. Specifically, how the LFL , initially a voluntary program, shaped public policy in this field and how it lead to official/mandatory policies.

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Marzhan Zhailau

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