PRB Discuss Online: Will China Relax Its One-Child Policy?

(February 2011) Since 1979, China has applied a family planning policy limiting most families to only one child as a means for controlling its high population growth. But now as its population is beginning to visibly age, will the government continue to enforce the policy? China will experience very significant aging if the total fertility rate remains at 1.5 children per woman. Furthermore, the country’s long tradition of son preference and illegal practice of sex-selective abortion has resulted in a disparity in the sex ratio at birth: 119 males to 100 females. Would relaxing the one-child policy improve China’s gender imbalance? And if parents had the ability to have more than one child, would that reduce the tendency to abort female fetuses and increase the survival of female infants and girls? In a PRB Discuss Online, Carl Haub, senior demographer at PRB, answered questions from participants about the one-child policy in China.

Feb. 22, 2011 1 PM (EST)

Transcript of Questions and Answers

Jesse Starkey: It is being suggested that the reasoning behind China considering the relaxation of the One-Child Policy is the aging of their population. That being said, how will increasing the number of children allowed to a family assist in caring for the aging population? These additional children will be too young to care for the majority of the aging population bulge, won’t they? Wouldn’t it instead result in a further strain on the public health system as more people in low income situations begin to have more children?
Carl Haub: I think the aging refers more to financial and pension support for the aged. Many developed countries are in a situation where the ratio of workers to retirees will be insufficient to support pension programs.

rabiatun adawiyah: One child policy had taken since more than ten years ago in china, how did it resist till now ? and how the people follow the rule ?, Perhaps the different way happened in other country, so the experience from china can be adjusted.
Carl Haub: It was actually about 30 years ago—the one child rule. People were required to limit births (as in Vietnam, too) and so they did it.

Lilli Sippel: China is one of the fastest ageing countries in the world. The result of this will be an unfavorable age structure. I wonder if the Chinese government considers immigration as one possible solution to its ageing problems. Would you consider China to be attractive for international migrants? Could China benefit from its currents relations to African countries in order to attract migrants? What would be the consequences for these African countries if China successfully recruited migrants from there?
Carl Haub: At present, China is believed to be a country of emigration rather than immigration but you raise a point I haven’t heard before. As far as Africa goes, or many other countries, langauge can be a big problem.

Alexey Raksha: Carl, what trajectory of the fertility change in China after relaxing of the one-child policy will be, how do you personally predict? Will it be like Hungarian in 1968 or East German in 1976 or like in the USSR in 1986 or in Russia in 2007? How far will it rise and for how long? Does the age shifting (postponing births to older ages) in births affect the fertility now? In my opinion, China trails the path that South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore all have traveled 15-20 years ago. And this gap of 15 years is decreasing, ’cause China progresses forward faster. Furthermore, these small asian tigers follow the path of Japan with 20-year lag. But we see that age shifting has slowed in Japan in recent years which resulted in rising of its TFR. South Korea’s TFR has risen from extremely low level too, while age shifting is much faster than in Japan and gone further already. HK’s TFR is also rising, but from extremely low rate. The only county from the list of east asian ‘tigers’ that still experience fertility fall is Taiwan, which is purely chinese-ethnic, and the fall gone extremely far. Fertility is ALREADY very like the one in Taiwan and HK in most developed eastern provinces and big cities (lower than 1.2, i think). I’d be VERY concerned if I was chinese ruling leaders, watching fertility change in HK and Taiwan. Which way China will go, Korean or Taiwanese/HK, how do you think?
Carl Haub: My guess is that it might not make much difference in the large metros but could in the rest of the country. And then there is the unknown effect of son preference. About 15 percent of female fetuses are aborted currently since, if couples are limited to one child, they want to ensure one is a son. So that would tend to raise the birth rate.

Anne Barnsdale: 1) What role do you think the media has played in the one child policy and the subsequent preference for male children? 2) What impact has the one child policy had on the image of China internationally? 3) as China becomes the most dominant power in the world what impact will this/has this policy have/had on its growth?
Carl Haub: I believe that son preference is quite an old tradition in China. While it is harmful to a country’s image, the practice is widespread in India and to some degree in Vietnam. But it certainly does not get mentioned during state visits or have much effect on trade.

Adrienne Allison: Will the Chinesse gov’t equate relaxing the One Child Policy with increasing consumer demand and fueling inflation and/or with even greater environmental degradation?
Carl Haub: I really think that the prime motivation is the worker-retiree ratio although a larger consumer market might have some appeal.

Robert Prentiss: While China will do what it’s leaders think is in China’s interests, their birth policy affects the whole planet’s well-being. Is there any useful evidence such as provided by the Limits to Growth folks on what kind of changes would are foreseeable and what they would mean for the rest of us?
Carl Haub: It would depend on what actually happens if the policy is lifted. I doubt a spate of preindustrial fertility would begin, such as 3 or more children.

Laurette Cucuzza: What effects, if any, would you anticipate from the easing of the one child policy on the status of women in China?
Carl Haub: Hopefully, greater value would be placed on the girl child since the need to abort females would be less.

Alexey Raksha: There’s been many different estimates of chinese fertility recently. The range is btw. TFR = 1.5 and TFR = 1.8 . Most of the difference comes from different estimates of newborn girls underreporting. Different methods of calculating fertility from current survey and census give different results. What are your estimates of TFR in China in 1991-2010 by year? Seems to me now it’s quite stable at the level of around 1.55-1.58 since 2004-2005
Carl Haub: The figure of 1.5 is believed to be the real value and it has been stable at that level for many years. 1.8 is the official figure but believed to be too high.

Cecily Westermann: Mr. Haub—I hate to see “To care for, or contribute to the support of, an ageing population” used as an excuse for supporting population growth.In your opinion, are there other humane solutions (aside from immigration and an increasing burden placed directly on young workers?
Carl Haub: Immigration certainly is but immigrants may hesitate to go to an nondemocratic country even if they do understand the langauge. And those reasons you cite are the same ones given throughout Europe, Japan, etc. Not being able to fund pensions is a difficult thing for governments.

Trilochan Pokharel: Imbalance in sex ratio is not only a demographic issue, it is a human right issue as well. How is China dealing with this human right issue favoring protection of girl’s right? Will relaxation in one child policy address this issue?
Carl Haub: As in India, ultrasound for sex determination is illegal in China and there are education programs against it. Recently, it was reported that it improved from 120 male births per 100 females to 119, so perhaps there has been a little improvement. South Korea managed to eliminate it.

URIRI ALEX EMUMENA: How will relaxing the one- child policy improve the salient and critical issue of drawing a balance between reproductive health and rights? Is the selective sex abortion in alignment with the MDG of women empowerment and gender equality issues?there needs to be serious rethinking backed up with appropriate solutions which promote fairness and social justice
Carl Haub: There are a lot of questions regarding the sex ratio today, so I can give a basic response here: It is likely relaxing the one-child policy will help improve the sex ratio at birth but no one knows how much, of course.

Lallie Scott: It’s my impression that most Han women in China prefer one child due to the increasing expense of raising a child. Will Chinese authorities need to coerce women to have more than one child? What incentives might they use to raise fertility rates?
Carl Haub: It would be interesting if China begins acting like a European country to try to raise the birth rate! Although, S. Korea has reversed its antinatalist program. But, I bet you’re right that it will not result in a massive “baby boom.”

Jeanne Humble: Chinese exchange students have told me that if each child grew up as the only child in his or her family, now the Chinese government is allowing this couple to have two children. Is this true?
Carl Haub: I believe so, but not nationwide, and there are other exceptions.

Sanjay Mishra: China has well controlled the population after it adopted one child policy in 1979, and now it is one of the largest economies of the world. China also managed its population in terms of economic mainstreaming, therefore, I perceive that China can give relaxation to its one child policy.Though there is fastest aging growing population and baby son given preference over daughter baby by the couple so gender gap also. What will be the impact if China did not give relaxation to its one child policy?
Carl Haub: Well, it would certainly have to deal with an unprecedentedly aged population.

Nicholas Duncan: With China having a shortage on the female population how do you think this will affect the nursing industry as the population ages, given the societies’ feelings on male nursing?
Carl Haub: I can’t comment on that directly, not knowing any stats on China’s nurse population, but it seems, even with today’s policy that there might be enough females, no?

J Kishore: Where one child policy is not the rule, is there less adverse sex ratio particularly in those countries where gender discrimination is rampant? According to my view China should abolish one child and focus on social reform keeping gender and equity in mind.
Carl Haub: There actually are skewed sex ratios in the Caucasus region where there is not a one child policy. As I mentioned earlier, S. Korea, which has son preference, was able to normalize their sex ratio at birth.

Fred: -As you wrote recently in your blog, Taiwan has a TFR of 0.91. “It’s the lowest rate any country has ever reported in history”. How come Taiwan without implementing a one-child policy has a de facto more drastic TFR than mainland China’s target of 1? -European countries mainly criticize China’s one-child policy because it is perceived there as an infringement of personal choice. Why do they think that prohibitive economic incentives give them more choice? Several European countries have a de facto TFR not so different from China’s target of 1. There are still incentives that choose for them.
Carl Haub: The low Taiwan TFR is simply a result of young people’s priorities in life, which we are seeing worldwide. Careers are seen as more important, especially given the high cost of living.

Richard Cincotta: Carl, You’ve asked all the great questions on the lead-in! Assuming that you’ll address those, how about this one: During the 2008 deliberations over the current policy, Chinese demographers made a case for pulling the plug on the policy. After weeks of deliberation, the Birth Planning Commission decided to keep it and they haven’t budged since. Some commentators suggest that they’re ignorant of the dynamics of aging and the policy’s stimulus to sex selective abortions. To me, it seems unlikely. What do you think explains their reluctance to amend the 2001 Birth Planning Law?
Carl Haub: Rich, I can only assume that they are not ready. Many of us have heard from good sources that they will relax the policy. China has tried to encourage births in Shanghai according to press reports and I read that they are testing a new policy in a few counties. So, I’m guessing that they are figuring out the best way to do it.

Kirsten Lyerly: Do you think that the under-14 age group’s sex ratio is more normal because of relaxed enforcement of the one-child policy/ less prevalent female infanticide in some areas?
Carl Haub: Or because the sex ratio at birth has risen since the mid-1990s as fertility fell to 1.5?

Juanita Tamayo Lott: Hello Carl, As a partial response to Jeanne, the American Statistical Association delegation to China last December was told by our 28-year old Shanghai tour guide that he and his wife are both only children so they are allowed two children. Our late-forties senior guide from Beijing said his cohort was allowed only one child. He and his wife have a 19 year old in college and feel that economically the one-child policy worked for them.
Carl Haub: Thanks, Juanita, good information.

Carina Stover: I am a retired USAID Health and Population Officer now based in Beijing. I hope I can make it till 2am to participate live but I suspect I will need to read the transcript tomorrow. I’d like to throw a few questions out: How is China relaxing its policy when children who were from single parity parents are now allowed to have two of their own anyway? How much consideration is China’s govt giving to the China conducted longitudinal studies that are showing that delayed 1st birth and spacing (7+ years between births) results in a slower population growth rate? Of course there are many other questions but I look forward to a discussion on these and others. Good luck. Carina Stover
Carl Haub: Yes, very good points. Particularly your pointing out that two births are allowed for only children. And, with that being true, the TFR has not risen as far as we know. China will be releasing its new census soon, possibly in April. That may shed some light on recent trends.

Kirsten Lyerly: If the one-child policy is relaxed, will contraception and abortion still be widely used since about 87% of married women already use these?
Carl Haub: I’m sure contraception will be since, if you want to have 2 children and that’s all, you’ll need it.

Kirsten Lyerly: If China relaxes its one-child policy will un-registered females then be allowed to become registered? Will the families who ‘hid’ these females face repercussions? What impact will this have on China’s economy, school system, etc? Does China believe that females will immediately be treated (or desired) like males once the one-child policy is removed? Has the provision allowing couples with no siblings to have two children made any impact on the overall population? Did the percentage of women increase in the population?
Carl Haub: This ties in with the release of the 2010 census data but, yes, I imagine that they will register females.

Marvin Zonis: Carl: I understood that there were substantial parts of China and also the Chinese society that were already not subject to the one child policy. Could you estimate the % of the total population that escapes that policy? Thanks for your great work and best wishes.
Carl Haub: Not right off the bat, but Chinese demographers have estimated the “true” policy, including the exceptions, call it a “1.5 child” policy, which also happens to be the TFR!

Kevin Browning: Will the One child Policy relaxation affect the current population aging problem in Japan?
Carl Haub: I couldn’t see just how, Japan is having little success raising its TFR.