One of the major policy changes that emerged from China’s recent Third Plenum Congress is a resolution that modifies the “one child” policy. This policy has been in effect since 1981, so the resolution recognizes that the one child policy may no longer be needed, and possibly even that it was mistaken in the first place. The reason why it may have been mistaken is that fertility would have declined a lot after 1981 even without this policy because of the rapid growth in incomes and education, and the shift out of agriculture toward cities.
The one child policy mandates that families can only have one child, but has allowed exceptions for minorities, certain rural families, and parents who are both only children. This policy was often vigorously and cruelly enforced, including forced abortions during very late terms, sterilizations, heavy fines for violations, and occasionally even imprisonment. The new announcement only slightly widens the exceptions by allowing couples to have more than one child even when only one of the parents is an only child. But this change is widely taken as a sign that the government will be much more accepting of families that have additional children.
The many exceptions to the one child rule explains why the average woman continued to have more than one child. For example, in 1990 the total fertility rate (TFR)- the number of children born to the average women over her lifetime- was over 2. By the year 2010 the official data has a TFR of 1.18, but private estimates suggest the number of children is underreported. Adjusted estimates put the TFR at 1.35, and even higher. Still, everyone agrees that the TFR has fallen substantially since the one child policy went into effect from its 1981 level of 2.8.
Before attributing this large decline to the one child policy, one should recognize that China’s per capita income, average education level, and degree of urbanization all grew rapidly in the decades after the reforms of the Chinese economy that began in 1978. Families with higher incomes and greater education who live in urban areas have many fewer children than poorer and less educated families in rural environments.
Although it is not possible to know precisely what Chinese fertility would have been absent the one child policy, preliminary calculations by Jung Sekong and myself based on the effects of income, education, urbanization, and other variables in surrounding Asian countries suggest that China’s TFR in recent years would have been about 1.5 because of the rapid rise in Chinese incomes and education. This means that a large increase in Chinese fertility from its present low level is unlikely even if the one child policy were completely eliminated rather than only modestly relaxed. Intervening changes in China since 1981 due mainly to its radical shift in the late 1970s toward a more market economy would have greatly lowered fertility in any case.
China’s fertility is now somewhat lower than it would have been absent the one child policy, and the decline since 1981 has also probably been more rapid. The many families who were prevented from having more than one child certainly suggest that the policy did bite. Yet, that China’s fertility declined sharply in the 1970s even before the one child policy went into effect indicates there were already forces in China pushing fertility down prior to the introduction of economic reforms.
China’s one child policy has contributed to the rapid aging of the Chinese population even though other powerful forces were also at work. This aging is causing major problems in providing for adequate medical care and retirement income of the elderly since government social security and heath programs are spotty, and many elderly individuals have only one child who might help them out.
Birth decisions by parents that are free to choose their family size are based on the incomes, education, and other personal characteristics of the parents, and on the expected opportunities of their children. Both of these changed rapidly after the late 1970s. China’s one child policy has been an experiment in social engineering that invaded these most personal of decisions. Although it apparently succeeded in lowering China’s fertility below what it would have been, the policy did not anticipate that the economic reforms begun in 1978 would have led to much lower fertility anyway. From this perspective, the policy has been largely unnecessary, and has done more harm than good.