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Time for China to Abandon Its Population Control Policy

by Yanzhong Huang
July 12, 2012

A young Chinese surrogate mother in the maternity ward of Guangzhou's Taihe Hospital, where she said she was forced into an abortion by the city's family planning officials, on April 30, 2009. A young Chinese surrogate mother in the maternity ward of Guangzhou's Taihe Hospital, where she said she was forced into an abortion by the city's family planning officials, on April 30, 2009. (Reuters Staff / Courtesy Reuters)


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, fifteen 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 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 eighty-five 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.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Christine

    The case with China and it’s population control policy is definitely something interesting to consider when it come to basic gender issues, and how a particular ration of females to males is actually important for a nation’s productivity/growth.

  • Posted by Mahesh

    Yanzhong Huang has made several blunders in this post.

    1) One child policy was strictly applied to only 1/3 of Chinese population until early 2000s, mainly in Eastern Coastal China.

    Even there starting in Fall 2011, if either spouse was an only child, the couple can have 2 kids. So one child policy has practically been phased out, although international media has not reported it.

    (Ref # T Hesketh, CMAJ, September 6, 2011, 183(12) pg 1377)

    2) The author counts aging population as 60y+. It should be 65y+. Raising the retirement from 55y (f) and 60y(m) to 69y as in Japan and Korea will turn Pension/Medical programs completely solvent till 2050.

    3) China makes 16-Million babies/yr, an enormous number the author did not report. Many studies have shown that China’s per capita productivity is 1/5 of US which makes 4 million babies/yr. Raising productivity to even 1/2 of US will more than make up for fertility decline.

    4) The abnormal m/f sex ratio at birth is not due to one child policy, low fertility, patriarchal society or abortion. Ex, India has high fertility, no baby restrictions, yet sex ratio is catastrophically high. Higher income groups have worse m/f ratios as they spend more on sex selection genocide.

    Japan has strong patriarchal society but no female genocide. The real cause is Confucian/Hindu Culture behind this behavior.

    South Korea reformed Confucian culture and this normalized sex ratio rapidly. Since 2007 S.Korea has normal sex ratios.

    5) China’s fertility rate is 1.6 births/female, not 1.3 as the author erroneously asserts.

    6) China is facing severe water, cultivable land, mineral, energy shortages. Higher fertility will make them much worse, more prone to war in South China Sea and Africa.

    The author should be cognizant of these dilemmas.

    Best strategy is to reduce fertility in Asia, Africa, Latin America to 1 birth/female. Africa is producing 38 million births/yr and Asia 74 million/yr. Unsustainable. Gates foundation and Family summit are desperate steps in right direction.

  • Posted by don bronkema

    On a given resource base, a fertility rate of more than 2.1 means less per capita & an ineluctable plunge in health, wealth & living standards.

    Even if, for a time, the resource-base rises, the result is suffocating hypurbanism & eventual collapse of planetary biomes.

  • Posted by surekha

    its a very good policy for one/two kids in china, it should be all over earth as population increasing at very high birth rate causing shortage of resources and making life hell. so it is a very good example given by china for one kid policy.
    heartily thanks to china
    let the other nation may think like this

    really happy to know this


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