Why China Should End Its Draconian, Counterproductive One-Child Policy

The 1979 law, which limits parents to a single son or daughter, no longer serves China's interests.



Last week, the government of the Philippines announced plans to allocate nearly $12 million towards contraceptive supplies for community clinics. Yesterday, the London Summit on Family Planning brought together government leaders, representatives from international agencies and civil society organizations, and private donors as part of a campaign to improve access to birth control in the world's poorest countries. In China, the story was dramatically different. Last Thursday, 15 prominent Chinese legal and demographic scholars issued an open letter calling for the end of restrictions on people's birth rights. The action was prompted by news reports that local government officials in northwest China forced a seven-month pregnant woman, Feng Jianmei, to undergo an abortion.

The forced abortion might be an isolated case in China. After all, the population control policy is no longer as strictly enforced in China as it was in the 1980s. The one-child policy is still in place in urban cities, but two children per couple is almost the norm in China's countryside. Theoretically, a couple can have as many children as they want as long as they have money and are willing to pay -- Ms. Feng was forced to abort her baby because she did not have RMB40,000, or $6,300, to pay the fine for having a second child. Wealthy families can even avoid the penalties by giving birth in Hong Kong or the United States. According to Hong Kong's government, in 2010 about 45 percent of the births in the former British colony were delivered by mainland Chinese women.

Despite the relaxation of the policy, China is increasingly suffering the consequences of a draconian policy that was put in place in the early 1980s. As I noted eight years ago, while the economic reforms expanded the freedom of production in China, the implementation of a stringent birth control policy severely limited the freedom of reproduction that the Chinese people had enjoyed for many centuries. The birth-control policy has tarnished China's international image and become a constant source of friction in China's relations with the Western world. 

Worse, the policy is undermining China's international competitiveness. According to a leading demographer on China, by 2013, with the growth rate of net consumers exceeding the growth rate of net producers, China's demographic dividend growth rate will turn negative. A rapidly aging population (thirteen percent of the population is over 60, the retirement age for men in China) makes elderly care a major concern in a country where the social security system is still underdeveloped. Furthermore, it contributes to the rapid rise of chronic noncommunicable diseases, which are responsible for 85 percent of China's overall mortality. In addition, the persistent male preference under the one child policy has led to infanticide, selective abortion, and female abandonment, which result in an extremely high sex ratio at birth (SRB). The current ratio in China is about 120, or 120 boys to 100 girls. Eight years from now, there may be 40 million more men of marriageable age than there are women in China. Already, the large number of young migrant male workers has contributed to a booming commercial sex industry in China. The sheer number of surplus men is believed to be a deficit for social-political stability.

Despite the huge social and international cost, it seems to be extremely difficult for the government to abandon the notorious policy. The policy has created vested interests resistant to any significant change. Its largest beneficiary is the family planning bureaucracy, represented by the National Population and Family Planning Commission and its local branches. There is also the problem of institutional "stickiness": the policy has become law and, as a "fundamental state policy," enshrined in the Constitution.

But the largest hurdle is the mentality. Thanks to the three decades of persuasion and propaganda, many Chinese have come to accept, internalize, and reproduce the hegemonic view of the state about the necessity of sustaining one-child policy. Talk with ten people in China, at least six may tell you how population control is important for China's development and how a shift to a laissez-faire approach will be disastrous for the country. The validity of the government arguments nevertheless has long been questioned.

Indeed, an argument can be made that the large population size contributes to China's rise as the world's second largest economy. Given the already extremely low total fertility rate (1.3), abandoning the population policy is unlikely to lead to a population surge that the Chinese leaders have long feared. The high living expenses will dampen the incentives for couples to have more kids. Ask any young couple in a major Chinese city whether they would like to have a second child if they are allowed to do so, you will get almost the same answer: No.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.