During the 1970s, China moved from a “late marriage, longer spacing, and fewer children” campaign to a one-child policy. Implemented locally, the law, community institutions, sterilization, abortion, and infanticide fueled one-child. Especially in the city, couples with more than one child could have lost a job, 10 to 20 percent of their pay, and even 40 percent of a year’s wages.
It took more than three decades for China’s leadership to decide that the tradeoffs were too costly.
In 2013, the government said two children were permitted if one parent was an only child. Then, two years later, all couples were allowed to have two children. By 2023, they said three (and more) were okay.
The reasons for the reversal related to babies, boys, and the elderly.
The Impact of China’s Birth Rate
From more than six babies per woman in the 1960s, China’s feritlity rate steadily slid from 2.1 by the mid-1980s to approximately 1.3 in the 1990s. Then, after the two-child switch, they got a slight bump to 1.772. But the dip resumed. with 1.08 the current estimate:
Correspondingly, births per 1000 people went way down. Compared to the U.S., the slide in China’s birth rate looks even more dramatic:
With boys the preferred single child, this year’s distorted gender ratio is 104.7 males to 100 females. In 2011, it was a whopping 118.1 to 100:
Having many millions of extra men has created its own challenges. Men have had to make themselves more desirable through their savings and real estate. A more affluent man with a home might have more of a chance of snagging a wife.
Whereas China was worried about too many children, now the concern is too many old people. Supporting pensions and social security for those who are no longer employed, the working population will have less for itself. Or as Philip O’Keefe, human development sector coordinator at the World Bank in Beijing said, “For the first time we are seeing a country getting old before it has gotten rich.”
Our Bottom Line: Tradeoffs
It all adds up to a slew of tradeoffs.
- Boys or girls
- One parent or two
- Big families or small ones
But I would say the biggest tradeoff will be the young or the old.
My sources and more: Sunday’s front page NY Times article inspired today’s China update. In addition to my 2021 sources that ranged from Project Syndicate, to the BBC, now I’ve added Pew Research, and the Conversation, In addition, during 2021 I had the pleasure of an afternoon with Princeton’s China expert Gregory Chow (now 92) and referred to his textbook on China’s Economic Transformation for this post.