When two is too little: On China’s three child policy

When two is too little: On China’s three child policy


China’s demographic interventions have had unintended social, economic consequences

Six years after abandoning the “one child policy” of 1979, China’s Communist Party has now introduced a “three child policy”. The move is to “improve China’s population structure, actively respond to the ageing population, and preserve the country’s human resource advantages”, the party’s Politburo said on May 31. The once-in-a-decade population census, released on May 11, may have prompted the latest change, recording 12 million births in 2020, the lowest since 1961. The census said there were 264 million in the 60 and over age group, up 5.44% since 2010 and accounting for 18.70% of the population. After the one child policy, China’s fertility rate fell from 2.75 in 1979 to 1.69 in 2018. Monday’s announcement is as much an acknowledgement as may ever come of the unintended consequences of deeply intrusive family planning measures, going back even before 1979, to Mao’s “later, longer, fewer” campaign, which itself, ironically, followed his exhortations to have more children to build the workforce. The party officially still defends the one child policy — that it prevented an additional 300 million births. Yet, the urgency of recent measures suggests otherwise, as China grapples with both an ageing and deeply gender-imbalanced population, and demographers’ worst fears of countries getting old before they get rich.

In 2013, China allowed couples to have a second child if either parent was an only child, with the two child policy introduced in 2015. Explaining why the measures did not boost birth rates, economists Jin Zhangfeng, Pan Shiyuan, and Zheng Zhijie wrote last year the two child policy “substantially increase[d] the number of second-child births” among those “less sensitive to child-rearing costs” but “substantially decrease[d] the number of first-child births” attributing it to rising costs. “Other developing countries, even without China’s stringent child-limitation policies, have also experienced declines,” they argued, suggesting “policy makers should give priority to reducing the child-rearing costs borne by prospective parents rather than simply relaxing or even abolishing birth quotas”. The latest announcement did acknowledge those broader structural problems, pledging to reduce families’ spending on education. It is, however, by no means an abandoning of China’s family planning policies. The entrenched — and widely reviled — family planning bureaucracy remains in place, and this week’s statement underlined that the “current reward and assistance system and preferential policies” for those following rules continue. Even leaving aside the strong moral argument against intrusive family planning — enforcement has meant forced abortions, sterilisations, and other abuses, some of which are still being reported in parts such as the Muslim-majority Xinjiang region — China’s experience is a reminder of the unintended social and economic consequences of state-led demographic interventions.


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