Too old for the One-Child Policy

Too old for the One-Child Policy

As Shanghai and China’s population begins to gray, many are looking to the government to see how the generation-old One-Child Policy will keep up with the times

One-child policy - grandparentChina's working-age population (which includes those aged 15 to 59) is expected to start shrinking sometime between 2015 and 2020 and wage-earners will be pressed to support an expanding number of retirees.Over the past few decades, China’s One-Child Policy has created a legacy of little emperors and lonely bachelors. 

Children dressed too warmly for the weather wander the streets of Shanghai, tailed by doting parents and grandparents. Dormitories full of male migrant workers ring Shanghai’s ubiquitous construction projects.

While the policy is visible everywhere, there are signs that the world’s most ambitious family planning regime is being quietly and carefully reconsidered.

The One-Child Policy passed its 30th birthday this year and, measured quantitatively, the past three decades have been a resounding success.

Population growth in the world's most populous country has decelerated hugely. For the past decade, however, an increasing number of opponents have been bringing attention to the One-Child Policy’s demographic downside -- aging.

"Right now the impact's not being felt, but the pace of aging is very fast," says Zhang Juwei, the deputy director general at the Institute of Population and Labor Economics at the Academy of Social Sciences.

Demographic dividends

When the designers of China's One-Child Policy looked into the future, they saw growth. They saw a huge population of young adults poised on the edge of childbearing age and imagined the pressure their children could put on an unsteady economic system.

So, in 1980, the One-Child Policy was born.

In Shanghai, the natural growth is already below replacement level.— Wu Xiaogang, associate professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

It was seen as a temporary measure when it was issued in an open letter to the Central Party Congress, calling for the "sacrifice of one generation" to help ensure smooth development in a post-Mao China.

Key words: “one generation.”

While China was concerned that its huge population would put pressure on an economic system that was short on capital and consumer goods, the country’s coming economic boom was built on the shoulders of a large working population, producing what demographers call a "demographic dividend."

In this scenario, a large younger population helps to lower the cost of labor, producing significantly more than they consume.

Since then, China’s demographic realities have changed drastically.

The fertility rate has shrunk to around 1.6 children per couple.

China's working-age population (which includes anyone aged 15 to 59) is expected to start shrinking some time between 2015 and 2020 and wage earners will be pressed to support an expanding number of retirees.

Even in the most populous country in the world, these statistics pose a problem -- China need only look to its neighbors in Japan and South Korea to see the lasting impact that a drop in fertility can have.

"In scholars’ circles it's a virtual consensus -- China needs to act quickly looking at what's happening in other parts of the world," says Feng Wang, director of the Beijing based Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy.

(Article continues below photo)

One-child policy - child on subwayOver the past few decades, China’s One-Child Policy has created a legacy of little emperors and lonely bachelors. By some estimates, China will have an excess of 24 million men by 2020.

Shanghai going gray

When it comes to aging, Shanghai has the rest of the country beat.

"In Shanghai, the natural growth is already below replacement level," says Wu Xiaogang, associate professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

If it weren't for the migrants coming into the city, Shanghai would be shrinking.

“It is the oldest city in China,” says Zhang Juwei.

In response, Shanghai has explored the limits of the existing One-Child Policy.

Last year, the city’s family planning commissioner, Xie Lingli, announced the city would be encouraging couples made up of only children to take advantage of a condition of the One-Child Policy that would allow them to have two children.

While central family-planning authorities quickly moved to assure the country that no changes in the policy were being made, Xie had made her point.

"Shanghai has about 3 million people aged 60 or over," she told the state-run news agency Xinhua. "The rising number of retirees will put pressure on the younger generation and the social security system."

Shanghai is not the only place pushing the boundaries of the policy, says Wu. “In some areas of the country the policy is already quite flexible,” he says, referring to areas where the policy allows a family to have a second child if the first is a girl.

In addition, he says, the government has started quietly looking into pilot programs that will test the reaction of a locality when the policy is loosened even further.

Shanghai has about 3 million people aged 60 or over. The rising number of retirees will put pressure on the younger generation and the social security system.— Xie Lingli, Shanghai family planning commissioner

“Many bureaucrats are worried that once the policy is loosened there will be an explosion in fertility,” Wu says. “But, most likely, loosening the policy will have little impact on the fertility rates.” 

Political inertia

While fertility rates may continue to drop regardless, there is a slim chance the One-Child Policy will be dropped in its entirety anytime soon.

"There is enormous political inertia," Wang says.

Family planning was set up as one of the pillars of Deng Xiaoping's "Four Modernizations" program and its reputation is tied to the success of China's reform and opening.

The policy is deemed important enough that, during China's 60th anniversary celebrations, family planning merited its own float in the official anniversary parade.

Some leaders might also remember the backlash in the early 1980s when China softened its original stance on family planning. 

The first iteration of the One-Child Policy came hand in hand with a sterilization campaign enforced throughout rural China. Local family planning officials were charged with carrying out the campaign and, in performing their duties, they sacrificed friendships and jeopardized their standing in local communities.

When the policy was softened, these local arms of the government rankled -- they were the ones who dealt with the realities of government policy. Where did they stand now the harsh measures they enforced were to be abandoned? 

Measures are already being taken to broaden the tasks of China’s family planning commissions, according to Wu.

“Their effort is not just to enforce the birth-control policy,” he points out, “but to improve the population quality.” 

At family planning centers throughout China you can see a change in emphasis from prevention to courses on pre-natal health and childcare.

Whatever they do to change, Wu says, it can’t come too soon.

“You have to prepare in advance,” he says. Otherwise, China could end up like Taiwan, where incentives to have more children have failed to turn around a shrinking population.

“When you get to the point that you’re asking people to start having more babies, it’s too late,” he says.