From One to Two: An Evaluation of Chinese Population Control

By Yifan Xia
Correspondent, International Relations Undergraduate 

On 29 October, the news about the reformational change of Chinese population control went viral throughout Western media. The one-child policy is about to come to an end 45 years after the policy was officially enacted in 1970.

Chairman Mao first introduced the concept of population control in China in the 1950s. Forty-five years have witnessed large improvements in China, while the impact of the controversial decisions has gradually come to the surface. Some people believe the policy has successfully solved the Malthusian trap, while others criticise it as a violation of human rights and the root of many generational problems today. So, how could we evaluate the policy for “one”? Why does the number of children matter? And more importantly, why now for “two”?

Some people believe the policy has successfully solved the Malthusian trap, while others criticise it as a violation of human rights and the root of many generational problems today.

Population control in China — also know as birth planning — is different from Western family planning. It means births are planned by the state to bring the production of people in line with the production of material goods. Many slight adjustments of population control have been done between “one” and “two.”

In 1982, two children were allowed for families in rural areas if the first child was female. Referred to as “one and a half child” policy, this reflects how ingrained the traditional idea of carrying on the family line is, namely that male children are desired over females. This factor has been acting as a barrier in the process of population control and is attributed to an imbalanced sexual ratio (because a female baby is very likely to be aborted).

As of 2013, a parent who is an only child themselves became allowed to have two children. This was viewed as the prelude to further reform in population control. Before 2013, many experiments were conducted in separate areas (rural areas in six different provinces) to see the consequences of a two-child policy or even no population control. And now in 2015, the well-known historical change has taken place.

Chinese_family_with_one_child_at_Beihai_Park,_Beijing.jpg

The one-child policy should be comprehensively evaluated from different angles. According to An Essay on the Principle of Population written by Tomas Robert Malthus, the population will outnumber the food supply because population multiplies geometrically while food supply arithmetically. The situation the young People’s Republic of China was in was even worse.

The fertility rate was 20 percent according to official data (this number was doubted by many famous demographers) with around 601 million people in 1953, when population collection was first conducted. This number soared to approximately 694 million in ten years. Not only because of improved health conditions, but also due to the low marginal cost and high possible investment return of having children. A pragmatic and economically-minded Chinese saying is that ‘a child is a valuable asset.’

Meanwhile, the young PRC suffered with a food supply that was sharply declining because of an unrealistic industrialization policy as well as serious environmental disruption. Although China is a large country, only 14.3 percent of the territory can be used as cultivated land (per 1980 data). As a comparison, India has nearly 58 percent of its land as cultivated land.

Additionally, agricultural and industrial technological innovation hardly improved up until 1982. Therefore, China faced a growth rate of population that was even faster than geometric growth and a poor food supply, struggling to keep the same level as the previous year. As a developing state with no foreign aid or ability to reallocate resources, one-child policy seemed to be a reasonable choice for long-term development.

Bringing attention to the two-child policy in 2015, it should be noted that all information available now for this change is guiding thoughts or a general idea released by the Party. In the Chinese political system, how and when the policy would be implemented are more dependent on provincial authorities, who tightly follow the guiding thoughts held by the central government. Therefore, how ordinary people would be affected by the two-child policy needs further investigation.

The policy-making process in provincial level denotes the ultimate shape of China’s new population control. Of course, the policy is not the end of adjustment of population control either. The scholar from the Birth Planning Leading Group, the authoritative institution in population control, said that it is very difficult to cancel birth planning, because any unpredictable demographic change would be very likely to undermine not only economic development but also political stability. China’s political reality requires a one-child policy which will result in the government relaunching the policy in the future.

It is very difficult to cancel birth planning, because any unpredictable demographic change would be very likely to undermine not only economic development but also political stability.

Fertility desire is an important factor in the policy-making. China was faced with an aging society in 2000 but no change in population control emerged at this time. The timing was believed to be too early by most decision makers as fertility desire was still quite high and the government was afraid that the population would be out of control.

In an experiment conducted in 2010 to 2015 with 55000 parents in a village of Anhui province, 25000 babies were born under the two-child policy. Compared to the data in 1980, where the number of babies was always two times than the number of parents, this result shows that people are less likely to have more children even if policy allows them to do so.

China’s political reality requires a one-child policy which will result in the government relaunching the policy in the future.

Today, low fertility desire emerges not only because of the policy but also the marginal cost and the investment returns of a second child are not as economic as before. Society is more competitive than ever and living costs are constantly on the rise. According to the data from the World Bank, annual population growth was 0.5 percent from 2010-2015. Total fertility rate (TFR), according to the number calculated by experts was 1.18 percent in 2014. Theoretically, 2.1 percent is the basic condition for generation change. To apply a more effective welfare system, the state needs an even higher rate.

China’s economic growth rate is slightly declining and the target has been adjusted from 7 percent to 6.5 percent based on many challenges, in which the population dilemma plays an important part. According to the data of The Chinese Academy of Social Science, the total number of the second children by 2030, the estimated time of the end of demographic dividend, would be around 2.5417 million, which could be helpful to support the declining labour force. Nevertheless, the full effects of the two-child policy remain to be seen in the future.

To apply a more effective welfare system, the state needs a higher total fertility rate.

Although the total population figure matters a lot, the quality of population is equally important. China cannot merely rely on the advantage of a large population any more. In fact, the labour force in China is around 930 million, which is nearly 200 million more than the total of all developed countries. Ironically, China is rated in 56th on the ranking list of GDP per capita, according to the World Bank. The mismatch between input and output needs to be adjusted by raising labour’s quality. Additionally, human rights should be included in the discussion of birth planning, as much inhumane behaviour has been conducted against the basic right of giving birth. However, to understand the initiative of the Chinese government, we need to pay more attention to their economic ideas, which are still much more highly valued than other factors in this country.

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Featured image courtesy of Thomas Galvez, WikiMedia Commons
Secondary image courtesy of Daniel Case, WikiMedia Commons

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