Civil Liberties

China's Baby Shortage


The Chinese government is signaling that it may loosen its draconian restrictions on family size because people are not having enough babies:

China's fertility rate is now extremely low, and the population is rapidly aging, especially in urban areas. Experts have warned that China is steadily moving toward a demographic crisis with too many old people in need of expensive services and too few young workers paying taxes to meet those bills. China is often regarded as having a limitless pool of young, cheap labor, but the country's biggest manufacturing centers are already facing labor shortages.

This is not the only problem created by the Chinese government's regulation of reproduction. Limits on family size lead to the wholesale abandonment of baby girls by rural parents keen to have at least one son. They also encourage sex-selective abortions, which contribute to China's worrisome gender imbalance. The on-again, off-again enforcement of China's population policies, which has featured onerous fines, mandatory sterilization, forced late-term abortions, and literal home wrecking (by local officials wielding iron bars), has caused bursts of popular unrest. Presumably these side effects are also on the minds of Chinese officials who say they're considering a change:

Zhao Baige, vice minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, told reporters at a news conference that government officials recognize that China must alter its current population-control policies.

"We want incrementally to have this change," Ms. Zhao said, according to Reuters. "I cannot answer at what time or how, but this has become a big issue among decision makers."…

Ms. Zhao said surveys indicated that a large majority of younger Chinese would like two children. But she warned that current plans call only for studying potential changes and that any adjustments must not lead to a rapid jump in the birthrate.

It's not clear what sort of tinkering Chinese officials have in mind. Parents in rural areas, where a large majority of the population lives, are already subject to a "one-son/two-child" rule, which allows them to try again for a boy if the first child is a girl. The government could extend that rule to urban families, or it could further raise the limits outside cities, which would reduce the incentives driving the abortion of female fetuses and the abandonment of female babies.

In the December issue of reason I considered the costs (and benefits) of China's "one child" policy.