China Drops Oppressive One-Child Policy: Too Late to Avoid Demographic Implosion

Reproductive central planning works as badly as economic central planning



The Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee meeting at its plenary session announced yesteday that the government is changing its 35 year policy of limiting Chinese families to one child. China's communist leaders, however, did not abandon demographic central planning: the new limit is 2 children per family.

As the result of this interference with families' reproductive choices millions of women were forced to have unwanted abortions. Because of a cultural preference for sons, China has in recent years a skewed sex ratio of 117 males for very 100 females. This imbalance of 30 million extra men has led Chinese economist Xie Zuoshi to propose polyandry as the solution, that is, allowing a woman to marry more than one man.

Despite this change in fertility policy, it is not at all likely that most Chinese families are going to take advantage of the new reproductive limit. Why not? Because the trajectory of China's fertility rates mirrors that of neighboring countries. Let's look at some total fertility rates (TFR)—the number of children a woman will have over the course of her life—in East Asia and Southeast Asia. Replacement fertility is generally set at 2.1 children per woman. China's TFR now stands at 1.7 children.

Hong Kong's TFR is 1.1 children; Taiwan's is 1.1; South Korea's is 1.2; Japan's is 1.4; Vietnam's is 1.7; and Thailand's is 1.4 children per woman. Perhaps even more telling is that the TFR for China's biggest city, Shanghai, is now at 0.7 children per woman. This trend toward lower fertility will likely steepen as more Chinese women become educated professionals and overall incomes increase. And keep in mind that in not a single country has the TFR ever risen above replacement once falling below it.

So what is China's demographic future? If China's fertility rate were to remain constant, its population would peak at 1.44 billion in a little over a decade and then fall back to 868 million by 2100. If its TFR were to fall to 1.3 children per woman, Chinese population would peak at 1.4 billion by 2020, and drop to 600 million (more than half) by 2100.

The Chinese Communist Party doubtless shifted its policy as it looked to the future and spied the looming demographic implosion. It turns out the reproductive central planning works as badly as economic central planning.

My colleague Jacob Sullum notes in his 2007 article, "Thank Deng Xiaoping for Little Girls," that one of the (happy for him and his wife) side effects of oppressive communist population central planning is that they were able to adopt their daughter Mei from China.