The recent announcement that China’s “one child” policy is being relaxed to the extent that if one parent is himself or herself an only child, the couple can have a second child, rather than, as previously, both must be only children to be permitted to have a second child, is likely to have some effect on the Chinese birthrate. For there must be a large number of only children, now adults, in China. The one-child policy was instituted in 1981, which means that any person under the age of 31 or 32 today was born when the policy was in effect, and many of these would now be of marrigeable age. So the modification of the policy will make only children more marriageable! Therefore, if the modified policy is expected to continue for many years, married couples will have an incentive to continue to have only one child, to enhance the child’s marriage prospects.
As Becker explains, it is unlikely that the one-child policy had a dramatic effect on the Chinese birthrate, not only because of the other factors (what collectively are referred to as the “demographic transition”) that can cause dramatic reductions in birthrate, but also because the policy was somewhat porous, both in theory and in practice. There were a number of exceptions. As enforcement shifted (not entirely, however) from abortion and sterilization to fines (“social compensation fees,” as they are called) as the primary sancteions for violation of the policy, well-off couples could have an additional child or even additional children. But only well-off couples, because the fines are stiff. And a Chinese who obtains an advanced degree from a foreign university is exempted from the one-child policy too. Notice that both these exceptions could be thought eugenic in purpose or effect, since the well off and the recipients of foreign advanced degrees are groups highly likely to have higher than average IQs. Still another exemption, again focused on the well off, is for couples who have an additional child abroad but do not register the child as a Chinese citizen when they return to China. A nonregistered child is not eligible for free public schooling and health care—which is why this exemption too is as a practical matter limited to the well off.
There are bits of evidence which taken together strongly suggest that the one-child policy is not the, or perhaps even a, major driver of Chinese birthrates. One, from my own experience as a judge, is that virtually all the cases we see in which a Chinese woman or couple is seeking asylum in the United States for fear of sanctions for violating the one-child policy (while here in the U.S.) if returned to China are from a single province—Fujian. Fujian is a large province, with a population of some 35 million, but that is a very small fraction of the entire Chinese population. Fujian appears to be a determined enforcer of the one-child policy; perhaps it’s the only determined enforcer. Indeed there is considerable evidence that it still resorts to abortion and sterilization (though how often one doesn’t know) as sanctions for violating the one-child province, even though the official Chinese position is that the only sanctions are monetary. As in this example, though China is a dictatorship there appears to be a good deal of local autonomy—and also a good deal of corruption. It is possible that in much of China the one-child policy is a dead letter, though this is merely my conjecture.
As Becker points out, when the one-child policy was adopted in 1981, the total fertility rate (the total number of children born to the average woman) was 2.8. According to one source (indexmundi: census data online, www.indexmundi.com/g/g.aspx?c=ch&v=31), it fell to 1.82 in 2001, but only to 1.79 in 2009—from which it plunged to 1.55 in 2012. The CIA World Factbook estimates the 2013 total fertility rate at 1.55 as well. Some China experts consider the figure too high—that it is closer to 1.3. Both figures imply a very steep fall in a three-year period, which can’t be attributed to the one-child policy, making one wonder how much of the decline from 1981 to 2000 (2.8 to 1.82) is attributable to the policy. According to World Bank estimates, the Chinese fertility rate fell much faster before than after the one-child policy as instituted—from 6 in the 1960s to less than half of that on the eve of the new policy.
One could hardly expect the “demographic transition” to reduce the average number of children per woman over her lifetime to 1; but on the other hand China has not yet reached that yet is relaxing the one-child policy. According to the online source above, the total fertility rate is only 1.4 in Italy and slightly lower in Japan, and is below 1.3 in South Korea—all countries that don’t have a one-child policy. (The rate in the United States is slightly above 2.)
So it is an open question how much effect the one-child policy has had on the Chinese birthrate.