Dangerous Demographics: China Revisits the One-Child Policy

By Erik Walenza-Slabe
Staff Writer
July 12, 2011

After thirty-three years of implementation, China’s controversial One-Child Policy has come under government review. China is unique in many respects, not least because it alone has imposed strict population controls on its citizenry, preventing about 400 million births since 1980. Unlike public sentiment toward other strict and unpopular policies in non-democratic regimes, China’s populace has largely accepted regulating childbirth..

Despite sustained criticism abroad, the policy is supported by 76 percent of Chinese. Widespread support derives from recognition that overpopulation reduces quality of life. Further, decentralized implementation coupled with loopholes for rural and minority Chinese leaves only 36 percent of families restricted to a single child. (Those families can opt to pay a fine for a second or third child.) The “double-singles” loophole, for example, allows some spouses who are both single children to have two children. The majority of urban Chinese in their 20s and early 30s now fit this category. As a result, the average Chinese family has roughly 1.8 children per household.

In cities, where restrictions are strictest, economic factors diminish the policy’s effect on family planning. Ningning, a master’s student in her mid-20s, summarized her ambivalence: “If I can have two children under the current policy, what more could I want? Between education and housing it’s too expensive to raise more than two children, and too much trouble.”

Despite the policy, China still faces a demographic nightmare know as the “4-2-1 family”, in which one working adult supports two parents and four grandparents. China is rapidly approaching Japan’s top-heavy demographics, but with a fraction of its GDP per capita and an immature social safety network. Rising healthcare costs present a serious concern as China ages. In the past 10 years, the population of Chinese over age 80 rose from 12 million to 20 million, and is projected to top 40 million by 2030 and 100 million by 2050.

When first implemented, the socio-economic downside of severe overpopulation plus a large working-age population overrode concern for any future demographic imbalance. In the decades since the Chinese baby boom, however, the One-Child Policy has ushered in a lower ratio of workers to retirees. This demographic shift threatens both economic development and social harmony.

That the One-Child Policy threatens the stability of China’s family-oriented society appears certain. A severe gender imbalance persists despite the outlawing of fetal ultrasounds, resulting in approximately 34 million more men than women in mainland China. According to a 2008 study by Stanford University, China’s gender ratio grew from 106 male births per 100 female births in 1975 to over 120 male births per 100 female births by 2005. This reflects a deeply embedded cultural preference for a son, who is expected to care for his parents and pass the family surname on after his sisters have married and left, as evinced by these lines from the Book of Songs (1000-700 B.C.):

Sons shall be born to him:
They will be put to sleep on couches;
They will be clothed in robes;
They will have scepters to play with;
Their cry will be loud.

Daughters shall be born to him:
They will be put to sleep on the ground;
They will be clothed with wrappers;
They will have tiles to play with.
It will be theirs neither to do wrong nor to do good.

Urban migration causes further demographic strains in both cities and the countryside. Cities throughout China are struggling to meet the demands of growing populations. Growth is particularly onerous in northern China, were chronic water shortages have prompted China to launch its most recent mega project, a system of canals that will shift one third of the Yangtze River’s water flow more than 1,000 miles north to Beijing and Tianjin. Meanwhile, urban migration contributes to rising housing prices and competition for jobs in cities, giving rise to prejudice.

Rural areas suffer different but equally pressing problems. Villages are losing their youth to the cities, leaving behind their grandparents and children, who are often barred from attending city schools. Those youth who remain face a disheartening gender gap. Rural Chinese are most likely to prefer male to female children, resulting in “bachelors villages” dominated by men with little chance of marriage.

Despite current and impending demographic stress, easing population control remains contentious. Even with the One-Child Policy in effect, China’s population grew by 73 million from 2000 through 2010, equivalent to the populations of California, Texas and Virginia combined. China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission has indicated that it will wait until at least 2015 to revise the One-Child Policy. When it does so, management of gender and age demographics, rather than citizen demands, will certainly guide reform.

Photo courtesy of Peter Garnhum via Flickr.

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