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Declining Chinese Birth Rate Could Doom One-Child Policy

Preliminary results from China's census, released today at a press conference in Beijing, reveal a population that is older, rapidly urbanizing, and growing more slowly, with a widening gap between male and female births. Those demographic changes, combined with comments Tuesday by President Hu Jintao, suggest the country's controversial one-child policy is under review and may be, at least in its current form, on its way out.

The census results reveal China's population grew 5.8% since 2000, from 1.27 billion to 1.34 billion. That's a significant slowdown from a rate of 11.7% in the 2000 census. At the same time, the proportion of Chinese ages 14 and under has fallen to 16.6%, compared with 22.9% in the previous census. Those statistics point to a fertility rate below 1.5 children per couple, says Wang Feng, a demographer and director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing.

That estimated fertility rate is lower than recent figures issued by China's National Population and Family Planning Commission, which calculates a rate of between 1.7 and 1.8. (The replacement rate is 2.1 children per couple, according to demographers.) Some scholars believe that the agency, which is responsible for administering the one-child policy, deliberately inflates the fertility rate to justify continuing the birth targets. Unlike the family planning commission, the National Bureau of Statistics, which released the census numbers, "does not have a political motive of its own to inflate or deflate the fertility numbers," Wang explained in an e-mail. "The census has cleared the smoke and confusion."

The new numbers, which confirm that China has become a low-fertility society, may explain why Hu asserted at a meeting of top government leaders that China will "uphold and improve" its current birth policies while working to ensure a "reasonable and stable low birth rate." His comments were broadcast on CCTV before the results were released.

Hu's statement was reported in English by Xinhua, the state news agency, as an affirmation of China's existing policy. But Chinese scholars view it as a sign of coming change, says Zhongdong Ma, a demographer at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Hu used ambiguous language that leaves open the possibility of altering the policy, Ma says: " 'Upholding and improving'—probably improvement is more important than persistence. It gives you some room to imagine that [the policy] is under discussion."

Hu's speech could be a "crack at the top," Wang agreed, adding that he was encouraged by the government's disclosure on national television that officials are studying the fertility issue. A birth rate of 1.5 would put China on par with Switzerland. If China doesn't alter its current policy, however, Ma warns it could fall below 1.3 children per couple, placing it in the category of countries with "lowest-low" fertility.

In recent years, Chinese demographers have become increasingly vocal in pushing for an end to the one-child policy, which was adopted in 1980. Among their concerns is the large increase in older residents. The census found 13.3% of China's population is over 60—some 2.9 percentage points higher than in 2000. Also worrying is a deepening imbalance in the sex ratio at birth, which rose from 116.9 boys per 100 girls in 2000 to 118.1 boys per 100 girls. That disparity suggests a spread in sex selective abortion. China's sex ratio imbalance is already severe, and its effects will only worsen as those in the youngest birth cohorts become adults, Ma says: "In 2 to 3 years you'll see the number of females in the marriage market substantially decrease."

On another note, the census revealed that 49.7% of Chinese now live in cities. In 2000 that figure was only 36%, making this the fastest decade of urbanization in China's history. Kam Wing Chan, an expert on Chinese migration at the University of Washington, Seattle, cautioned that some of the rise could be explained by a new method of counting people that aimed to track down more temporary residents.

The growth of that floating population—migrants lacking residence permits—is a reflection of China's booming economy. There are now 261.4 million people living at their current residence for at least 6 months without a permit—a whopping 81% increase over 10 years ago. Many are rural workers living in cities, and a spike in their ranks could affect social stability, says Chan. "A higher ratio of an underprivileged and disenfranchised group is of concern," he wrote in an e-mail. "It has important economic and social implications."

The census also revealed some positive trends. The number of Chinese with a college degree more than doubled since 2000, to 119.6 million, and the literacy rate rose slightly, to 95.9%.

Provincial results will be made available soon, with a full census report expected later this year.