Researchers aren’t surprised by yesterday’s announcement that China’s government will abandon its longstanding one-child policy. And although demographers predict the new two-baby allowance will have just a modest near-term impact on the nation’s demographics, they say it could bring social and political benefits.
China’s government will be “actively taking steps to counter the aging of the population,” the Xinhua state news agency reported Thursday in announcing the move, which followed discussions among Communist Party leaders about China’s forthcoming 5-year development plan. Demographers had long urged the change, pointing to China’s rapidly aging population, along with a surplus of tens of millions of males caused by sex-selective abortion.
The announcement is “long overdue,” wrote Yong Cai, a demographer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in an email. “This is probably the easiest reform program that the Chinese Communist Party could push out—with virtually no political risk, but with enormous social benefits.”
The announcement was not unexpected, says Zeng Yi, a demographer at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and the director of Peking University’s Center for Healthy Aging and Development. In 2013 and again this past April, China’s National Development and Reform Commission, a high-level policy-making body, had included in a key publication papers Zeng authored that advocated quick adoption of a two-child policy. And in 2013 the government rolled out a new policy that allowed couples to have two children when one parent was an only child. Those moves followed longtime criticism of the one-child policy from international human rights and religious groups, and tensions over its enforcement within China.
Many China-born scholars and former officials had been advocating for the policy’s abolition for years. One issue they highlighted was a sex-ratio imbalance: China’s 2010 census found that 118 boys were born for every 100 girls—a gap that stayed nearly steady from 2000, when the census found 117 boys per 100 girls.
The researchers also argued that China’s fertility rate had dropped to potentially problematic levels for a nation with a rapidly aging population and shrinking workforce. By comparing official statistics to school registration records and other data, they concluded that China’s birth rate had dropped to 1.5 children per woman in 2010—much lower than the 1.77 figure the government claimed. Analysts say the government presented the higher figure in order to provide a justification for the one-child policy.
Other researchers have pursued studies suggesting that many Chinese now prefer small families. An early survey of thousands of women in Jiangsu province, for example, found that relatively few were ready to take advantage of an early policy exception in the province that allowed some couples to have two-child families. One child was best, some 55% of women eligible to have two children told surveyors.
Those results reflect the fact that “the costs of childbearing is very high,” Zeng wrote in an email. A preference for fewer children is “widely prevalent in all urban areas and quite many rural areas,” he adds.
At this point, Cai says, the factors convincing couples to have children “are more structural and cultural” than policy-driven. Still, he adds, abolishing the policy sends an important message and will help ease tension within Chinese society: “It is a liberating step.”
Other researchers have set out to quantify the one-child policy’s more intangible effects on Chinese society. In a paper published in Science in January 2013, Lisa Cameron of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and co-authors used games developed by experimental economists to estimate the degree to which the policy has shaped the personalities of what some dub the “little emperor” generation. The researchers found that study participants who became only children because of the policy were less trustworthy and less conscientious than others, even after controlling for factors like gender and education.
The policy shift may have a “modest effect in the short term” on the birth rate, says Wang Feng, a demographer at the University of California, Irvine. But its long-term impact on population trends like aging will be “mostly unnoticeable,” he predicts. China’s mortality rate is low, Zeng notes, and a baby boom generation born during the 1950s and 1960s, when Mao Zedong encouraged couples to have many children, will age in the next few decades, keeping China’s overall population relatively old.