Reuters One-year-old Qiqi holds a ballon on a street outside Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in central Beijing, November 8, 2013.

Two Little, Too Late

China's One Child Policy and Population Collapse

Experts have warned for years that China will get old before it gets rich, yet the Chinese government has persisted in enforcing extreme forms of population control that seriously violate international human rights norms. The result has been a confluence of perverse demographic outcomes, including widespread sex-selective abortion.

No one knows why China retained the one-child policy long after it became clear that the nation’s birth rate was closer to being dangerously low than dangerously high. Perhaps it was the natural knee-jerk conservatism of a bureaucratic, authoritarian state; old habits die hard. When China did finally relax its one-child policy in 2013, official media confidently predicted that the state could “maneuver” its fertility rate to its desired level of 1.8 children per woman. The anticipated baby boom did not materialize. Even now that China has announced a two-child policy, Beijing has not abandoned its fertility control efforts: each family will still be limited to two, and even this upward revision will not come into effect until March 2016. And Chinese officials have warned people not to start having additional babies just yet.

That’s strange behavior for a government that is desperate to defuse a ticking demographic time bomb. China’s working age population will fall by nearly 53 million people—more than five percent—between 2015 and 2030, according to projections from the U.S. Census Bureau. Any two-child births starting in March 2016 will not impact the Chinese workforce until after 2030. And by then, things look much worse regardless. If the new policies do not boost fertility, China’s working age population will fall by another 20 percent between 2030 and 2050. China’s dependency ratio (the ratio of children and elderly to working-age adults) will soar to developed-country levels, but the country will remain far below developed-country income levels.


The full demographic picture is even worse than these statistics suggest. China’s total fertility rate is now just over 1.2 children per woman based on calculations from Chinese birth data. Granted, this estimate may Chinese Academy of Social Sciences puts the fertility rate at 1.4, a figure that is still well below the official estimate of 1.7 that is contained in government and World Bank reports and is the basis for the U.S. Census Bureau projections. But international (as well as Beijing’s) consensus is that China’s true fertility rate is much lower than the officially reported 1.7, which everyone agrees is massaged to make it look like Beijing is coming closer to meeting its targets.

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