Time to drop the one-child policy

The original arguments for China’s strict family-planning laws no longer hold and these outdated restrictions should now be relaxed, argue Zuo Xuejin and Yang Xiaoping.

Since 1980, China has implemented a strict family-planning policy. In the past 30 years, the country has seen major changes in its population growth rate and within the next couple of decades the total number of people will start to fall. Most of the original reasons for implementing the policy are no longer valid, and it is time for China to change its position.

Already the world’s most populous nation, for a time in the 1950s China encouraged families to have more children. In the 1960s, this shifted to a policy of promoting birth control, and then in the 1970s to a nationwide family-planning policy aimed at persuading families to have fewer children, to have them later and to leave wider gaps between births. China’s total fertility rate fell by an unprecedented degree.

On September 25, 1980, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China published an open letter to Party and Youth League members on the need to control the country’s population, marking the start of a strict family-planning regime – the one-child policy.

In 1984, difficulties implementing the rules in rural areas led to alterations and to the formation of the policy as it now stands. Urban residents are allowed one child, while a “child and a half” policy operates in rural areas, meaning families are entitled to a second child only if the first is female. The restrictions do not apply in Tibet.

The open letter made clear the reasons for implementing this policy.

First: controlling excessive population growth. The letter set the goal of “keeping the population under 1.2 billion” through to the end of the century, and pointed out that “Based on the current birth rate of 2.2 children per couple, our country will have 1.3 billion in 20 years and 1.5 billion people in 40 years.”

Second: increasing saving and investment rates. At the time, China’s agricultural and industrial labour productivity rates were still very low. Population control seemed a feasible method of cutting consumption, increasing saving and investment rates and promoting rapid economic growth. “Too rapid population growth will reduce accumulated capital,” the letter said.

Third: increasing standards of living. “It is hard to improve living standards with excessive population growth. Take grain supply as an example…If the population increases to 1.3 billion, arable land in China will fall to just over 1 mu [around 667 square metres] per person. Under current circumstances, it will be very difficult to provide an average of 400 kilograms of grain per person and enough commercial crops from so little land.”

Fourth: reducing consumption of resources and protecting the environment. The letter stated: “Excessive population growth will not only make education and employment more difficult, but will also result in over-consumption of natural resources such as energy, water and forests, increase pollution and worsen the conditions for production and the human environment. These will be hard to improve.”

Theories from abroad, such as those set out in The Limits to Growth, the 1972 book from on the consequences of rapid population growth from international think-tank The Club of Rome, also influenced the tightening of family-planning policy.

However, the changes in China in the three decades since reform and opening up – the launch of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms – have shifted the ground on which the policies were built, and the whole area now needs to be re-examined.

First, China’s population is no longer growing too quickly and, within the next two decades, will actually start to shrink. The open letter of 1980 stated that China’s population was growing too quickly. At the time, the population’s natural growth rate was 1.19% annually. By 2008, this had fallen by more than half, to 0.51%. Meanwhile, the total fertility rate fell from 2.31 children born per woman to between 1.4 and 1.6. If sustained, these low birth rates will cause the overall population to decline.

Second, there has been a fundamental change in the way China’s economy grows, and there is an urgent need to expand domestic demand. Currently, China’s primary macroeconomic goal is to shift from high saving and investment rates to greater consumer demand. But continued population control means keeping a lid on consumption – the two aims are at odds with each other.

Third, grain production per head has greatly increased, and there is a problem of overcapacity in some industrial sectors. By 2008, per capita arable land had shrunk from the 2 mu (1,333 square metres) of the 1980s to 1.47 mu (980 square metres). But production of main agricultural products per person had actually increased.

Meanwhile, China has a fairly severe problem with over-production. The major economic driver should no longer be the pursuit of higher per capita GDP, but raising the quality and economic efficiency of the goods produced and reducing resource consumption and pollution produced during manufacturing.

Fourth, population is not actually the main factor in resource depletion and pollution. It is growth in per capita energy consumption – and not population – that ultimately drives increases in overall use of power. From 2000 to 2008, China’s total energy consumption doubled, despite the population only expanding by 5%.  

The key to saving energy and resources lies not in population control, but in reform of the production methods, technology and lifestyles that influence individual consumption patterns. Circumstances have changed, and China needs to consider why it is continuing with a policy of population control.

Ten years ago, China predicted its population would start to shrink in the middle of the twenty-first century. Officials have now moved this date forward. But a lower birth rate will not necessarily improve China’s situation.

In the past, discussions around population and population control tended to work on the assumption that controlling birth rates increases average income. But this does not tally with current research. Elderly members of single-child families in rural areas are more likely to suffer from poverty. There is a lack of theoretical or evidential support for the belief that having fewer children will increase rural incomes, and it should not be used as a basis for family-planning policy.

Of course, over the lifespan of a rural resident, having fewer children will mean lower expenditure on child rearing, and therefore higher income per head for the family (even if it does not necessarily increase total household earnings). But, in old age, this resident may face serious economic hardship. Moreover, the happiness of a household is not determined solely by its income. Satisfying the desire to have children may be more important than material living standards.

A common reason for opposing policy change is that a loosening of the rules will result in an immediate rebound in birth rates. But there is no evidence to support these concerns. In fact, trial areas where the policy has been relaxed to allow second children have actually seen lower birth rates than other parts of the same province.

The current population-control policy is an extraordinary measure, taken at a high social and political cost. China remains the only nation with such a policy, and a change would merely be a reversion to the norm. The argument for change is strengthening, and a consensus is forming within both the academic and the public spheres. As the open letter from 1980 said: “In 30 years, the currently pressing issue of population growth may have been eased, and a different population policy can be adopted.”

Zuo Xuejin is executive vice president and senior research fellow at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences; Yang Xiaoping is an assistant researcher at the Academy’s Population and Development Institute.

An earlier version of this article was published by China Reform

Homepage image by Elizabeth Thomsen