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Will China finally end its one-child policy?

There’s a common saying in China: we’ll get old before we get rich.

An indoor skating playground at a shopping centre in Beijing (Photo: Zhang Peng via Getty Images)
An indoor skating playground at a shopping centre in Beijing (Photo: Zhang Peng via Getty Images)
Published 23 May 2018   Follow @meifongwriter

Recent media reports indicate Beijing may lift all restrictions on family size, possibly by the end of this year.

Of course, there have been premature predictions about the end of the policy ever since China switched to a nationwide two-child policy two years ago. This misunderstanding came about because of the “one-child” nomenclature, which imperfectly describes the set of population policies applied in China since 1980. People focused on the number “one”, when in reality a variety of exceptions made for specific groups made “1.5 child policy” a more accurate name, at least until 2016.

The important thing was always the existence of rules, and punishments, that came with the policy. That is why the lifting of all restrictions will really herald the end, and mean so much to those who might otherwise be heavily penalised for their fertility choices.

Scrapping the one-child policy won’t undo the damage it’s caused over more than thirty years, creating a population that’s becoming too male, too old, and too few to sustain strong economic growth. China’s rulers – impervious to criticisms of human rights abuse during the policy’s implementation – have been undoing the policy because it needs to replenish the country’s shrinking stock of workers. 

But even if, and this is a big “if”, there is a significant uptick in births, those babies will take about twenty years to mature, which won’t solve China’s current gender imbalance or eldercare issues. Already the country boasts more single men than the total population of Australia (30 million), and will by 2050 have a retiree population larger than all Europe.

As it is, every indication suggests that China, like many other modern countries, will face declining birth rates. Previous attempts to loosen the policy, including the two-child move, have not resulted in a significant rise in births. Indeed, in 2017 the number of births actually fell

Like other modern societies, China is dealing with the trend of shrinking families and rising infertility. Unlike some modern societies, however, Beijing is not putting much effort into building up its social safety net, subsidising education, or improving gender equity, all measures that have been proven to stem fertility drop-offs.

Instead, the Chinese Communist Party appears to be taking a leaf from its old fertility playbook: chivvying. Not long after the two-child ruling, party members in central China were being told by local authorities that having a second child was their patriotic duty. The movement even had a slogan: “Doing It Starts With Me”. 

Urban educated women report increasing pressure to get married, have more kids, and be less career-oriented. Getting married later is no longer encouraged, with authorities cancelling “late wedding leave”, a 30-day paid work leave given to encourage folks to defer marriage until after the age of 25.

Workplace discrimination against women has also risen. Recruitment site showed 33% of women had their pay cut after giving birth, and 36% were demoted. Feminist scholar Leta Hong Fincher also notes an increasing push to encourage college students to marry and give birth before graduation, with many media articles suggesting this makes young mothers more employable.  

One question I get asked a lot is which of the one-child policy’s negative repercussions are the most ruinous. A desperately stunted economy? A more warlike nation of unruly bachelors? A country of lonely and selfish Little Emperors?

Many of these scenarios are still in the realm of speculation. We know China has these imbalanced, unhappy groups, but we are not entirely sure how their actions will shape the course of the nation.

Except for one group. Short of some cataclysmic plague or war, China’s vast cohort of workers will grow older. By 2050, one in four people in China will be a retiree. This will definitely put an incredible strain on China’s one-child generation, who will have the 4-2-1 problem of taking care of kids and elderly parents, with but a nascent social safety net for support. With fewer workers paying into the system and more pensioners drawing from it, China’s pension shortfall could by 2050 reach trillions, according to a Deutsche Bank estimate.

There are, of course, other countries with greying populations. Japan takes the lead, but it has a far smaller population and a per capita GDP four times larger than China’s. That is why there’s the common saying in China, “We’ll get old before we get rich”.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that China shot itself in the foot demographically with the one-child policy. From having five people to support one retiree, the country will soon have 1.5 workers per retiree. Its bachelors need brides, its elderly need caretakers, yet its women were reduced by the one-child policy. Coupled together with a long-standing cultural preference for sons, this has led to a shortage of 40–60 million females

The one-child policy neither created an elderly cohort, nor a male bias. But it was an accelerant that caused existing conditions to flare-up, like kerosene on brushfire. Ending it will not end the destruction.

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