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The Chinese government adopted the one child policy in 1979 with the aim of controlling the population increase and improving the living conditions of the people as high population was perceived to be a major hindrance for the country’s growth. Reports suggest that the one child policy helped China prevent around 400 million births. Though the policy was strictly implemented across the country the government did allow ethnic minorities to have more children. A number of rich people also were allowed the same in exchange of monetary fines.


One Child Policy and its Consequences


The one child policy has had everlasting consequences on the Chinese society. The Chinese Government did manage to control the births, however, it resulted in distorted sex ratios (because of the preference for a male child) and has brought China at a stage where it may get older before it gets richer. According to official data from the Chinese Health Ministry released in March 2013, since 1971 Chinese doctors performed more than 330 million abortions and 196 million sterilizations. The one child policy also resulted in 4:2:1 household, which means a household where there are two sets of grandparents dependent on two working individuals who have one child, increasing the number of dependents on the working age people. According to some estimates because of the male preference, the Chinese society lost around 62 million women to female infanticide and gender discrimination. It is believed that China lost its demographic advantage by 2012 as the number of people entering the work force started to reduce. By 2013, the number of workers supporting elderly people was around 16:100, which is expected to increase to 64:100 by the year 2050. The shrinking population is having negative impact on the economy due to which the Chinese Government relaxed the one child policy in 2015.


The catalyst for the Government’s decision was the reducing fertility rate that is currently way below 2.1, which is necessary to maintain population stability. This pace of shrinking population will also affect the country’s economic growth rates. As per reports, by the year 2050 more than a quarter of the Chinese population will be over the age of 65, which clearly pushed the Government to consider the abolition of the one china policy.


The Two Child Policy


China adopted a two child policy law on January 1, 2016, nearly after 40 years of government restrictions on birth. No surprise that during the 2017 Party Congress, President Xi Jinping did not mention the words ‘family planning’ and after almost three decades, the words ‘birth control’ were not mentioned in the Party work report. A researcher at the China Population and Development Research Centre, Huang Kuangshi, has even suggested that the Chinese Government should allow some tax relaxations to couples who have more children.


This change gave the Government a hope that it will help increase the Chinese population. In 2015, Wang Peian, Vice-Minister of the National Health and Family Planning Commission was positive that, “new births will increase sharply within a short period and 76 per cent of the newly born second children will be in urban areas.” However, the outcomes have not been positive. Large sections of working women in China are not too keen to have a second child because of the high cost of raising children. According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics there has been consistent decline in the birth rate in China from 17.86 million in 2016 to 15.23 million in 2018. This was the lowest birth rate China has seen since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. The Chinese officials were hopeful that the relaxation would result in an increase in the number of births to about 21-23 million. According to Chen Youhua, a demographer from Nanjing University the lower levels of birth rates are because there are less women of child bearing age, because of the strict implementation of the one child policy during the 1990s. Another factor is that in richer provinces owing to the higher cost of having children, fewer women want to have a second child. When the policy was relaxed in 2013, only 5 percent of women of childbearing age in Shanghai applied for having a second child, according to the Family Planning Commission. As per a survey conducted by the All-China Women's Federation in the second half of 2016, which covered 10,000 respondents in 10 Chinese provinces, around 54 percent of the people were not keen to opt for a second child.


The trend has been similar across some of the most populous provinces of China. In the Shandong province, the birth rate reduced from 1.75 million in 2017 to 1.33 million in 2018. What is ironical is that the Chinese Government continues to punish people for having more than two children, despite the fact that they are struggling with major population slowdown. The Government froze a couple’s bank accounts for not being able to pay the “social maintenance fee” US$9,500 for having a third child. Such actions discourage people from having more children. This clearly indicates that the relaxation in childbirth numbers did not bring about the expected results. There is a drastic reversal in the Chinese propaganda machinery, which is now urging the Chinese citizens to have more children for the country.


Since the change in policy did not result in any major rise in population growth, the Government may be considering complete abolition of any limit. The Chinese Government has been indicating the change in population policy changes since 2016. In 2016, the Government issued a stamp, which was the Year of the Monkey with two baby monkeys kissing their parents; while in 2019, which is the Year of the Pig, the Government issued stamps with three piglets kissing parents. This may be symbolic of a shift; but there are concerns that the Chinese Government may start penalizing people for not having enough children. However, even though there were some observations that Beijing may abolish family control, there have been no official announcements. The Government has been considering a change in the civil code and removal of the idea of family planning; and it is expected that this draft civil code may come for discussions and approval of the parliamentary body in March 2020. This may indeed abolish the limit on childbirths.


There are strong economic and growth concerns behind the pace at which the Chinese Government has put an end to the one child policy and moved towards allowing its citizens to decide how many children they want to have. According to Chen Jian, a former division chief at the National Family Planning Commission, “China’s population issues will be a major hurdle for President Xi Jinping’s vision of building a modernized country by 2035.” The rapidly aging population has also increased the pressure on pensions, old age homes and better elderly care. The Government will have to invest increasingly more in these sectors, which would mean directing funds away from infrastructure and consumer manufacturing. According to some estimates, by 2020 Beijing will have to look for ways to address major shortfalls in pension, amounting to about 540 billion dollars. Some scholars argue that the only way to navigate these changes and overcome this challenge is to increase the retirement age. In addition, economists like Dr. Yi and Su Jian have observe that the Chinese population has started to decline since 2018.




Such fears coupled with the fact that Xi is keen to usher China towards a moderately prosperous economy have pushed Beijing to look for ways to counter the declining population. The current population figures also underscore the argument that development leads to lower population growth and this questions the logic of adopting and implementing the one child policy. However, the major challenge for the Government today is to counter the declining rates of growth as well as the declining population and work force, and look for ways to boost growth. It is being contended that if the Chinese demography continues to decline it may have negative impact for the overall global economy too. China became the number two economy in the world with the help of its huge demography. If the working age population consistently reduces, it will impact the overall growth levels and the Government will have to direct more investments towards elderly care and pensions. This could also lead to shrinking of domestic consumption, and thus have a negative impact on domestic growth as well as the global economy at large.


The push to maintain consistent growth rates is essential for the CPC as it is directly linked to peace and stability, and also for the legitimacy of the CPC to continue its rule. Since the reform and opening up of 1978, the CPC’s legitimacy moved from being based largely on ideology to sustaining economic growth. This coupled with the robust and “going out” policy in the form of the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) adopted by Xi Jinping makes the economic growth ever more central to its geopolitical and geoeconomic ambitions. However, if the population challenges continue to harm the domestic growth levels, it may have a very negative impact on the stability and legitimacy of the CPC to stay in power. Though the government is trying to counter this with the help of innovation driven growth and shift towards Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation, its success/outcome can be assessed/judged only over a period of time. These technologies may take decades before they become completely useful. How China will successfully manoeuvre this phase will be an interesting aspect to study. Nevertheless, it is tough to ignore that the fact that the current predictions indicate that one of the major challenges for the Party will be demography.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.