China and its “two-child” policy

30.10.15 Publication:

It is an act typical of an old Communist regime where officials think that if they send out a decree, things will actually happen: 35 years after China introduced its “one-child” policy of population control, it has now announced that couples will henceforth be allowed to have two children. More babies, it is said, will help stop the country getting old before it gets rich. Yet all the evidence is that this will make virtually no difference.

Like Germany, Italy and its near neighbours in Japan and South Korea, China is suffering the consequences of a dramatic fall in fertility rates. Indeed, the country’s population structure is ageing so rapidly that by 2040 the median age in China will have overtaken that in the United States, according to projections by the United Nations Population Division. By 2050 it will still be lower than that in the European Union, but not by much.

So allowing couples to have more babies might be expected to help balance out this ageing. The trouble is that, like in other countries, Chinese women do not appear to want more children. And this is nothing new: according to a presentation I recently attended in Beijing by an eminent American demographer, Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, the fertility rate of urban Chinese couples had already collapsed to well below the level needed to keep the population stable even before the one-child policy was introduced in 1980, and that in rural areas was not far behind.

The rule limiting couple to just one child was relaxed two years ago in rural areas, but appears to have had only a small impact on birth rates. Most probably, this new change will suffer the same fate. In China, like in Japan, women are marrying later than they used to, and fewer are having children, whatever the rules say.

However, this new rule does stand a chance of making a difference to another feature of Chinese demography, one that officials do not like to talk about. Indeed, this may be the true target of the new rule. That feature is the huge imbalance China now sees between boys and girls, and hence between men and women.

The one-child policy may have had little effect on the total population of China, but it has played a part in a big rise in infanticide and gender-selection abortion. Even before 1980, Chinese families’ preference for sons over daughters had led to a small imbalance between boys and girls. But now, 35 years later, there are 20% more boys than there are girls.

That imbalance is less marked in Beijing and Shanghai, but has become very large in some less wealthy and more rural provinces, reaching even 25-30%. It means that the country now has a larger and larger group of men who are unlikely ever to get married, because there are not enough females. Pretty soon, according to Professor Eberstadt, 20-25% of Chinese men will be permanently single.

Such a prospect is at the very least an uncomfortable one for Chinese society. Potentially, however, it could become quite unstable. Young men predominate in every society in terms of violence and crime. Single young men, with no prospects of marriage and families, might be even more violent.

Relaxing the one-child rule will not be enough to deal with this problem, on its own. But by reducing the incentive for female infanticide among those couples who do decide to have children, it might help. That it also serves the human rights both of married couples and of first-born daughters is, of course, an even more important point. Gains in human rights in China do not happen every day. So even small gains deserve to be celebrated.