China’s one-child policy shift is a step forward in bigger population challenge

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beijing woman ballons
A woman in Beijing, China, holds children's balloons.
Photo credit: 
Flickr/Michael Abshear

China announced plans to discontinue its “one-child policy” in October, relaxing over three decades of controversial family planning policies and changing to a universal two-child policy. This new policy is a step forward, but China’s population aging and gender imbalance will create challenges for decades, according to a leading Stanford health researcher.

“China has reached a certain level of social and economic development where low fertility and population aging have become norms,” said Karen Eggleston, a senior fellow in the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) and director of the Asia Health Policy Program. “Similar trends are seen in Japan and South Korea, and governments are struggling to catch up.”

The policy change comes amid concerns of potential labor shortages and a burgeoning aging population that could pressure the Chinese economy for years to come. 

The country has had record growth – China’s GDP growth rate averaged 8.6 percent over the past five years – which is now slowing. That trend coupled with China’s rising life expectancy reinforces the need for a healthy, economically productive population to support the elderly, experts say.

“Demographers who study China knew a policy change was coming, but not when,” said Eggleston. “The policy was strategically announced with the Five Year Plan – a sort of developmental roadmap for the country.”

Karen Eggleston 

A forthcoming book, Policy Challenges from Demographic Change in China and India, edited by Eggleston examines the policy challenges posed by demographic change in China and India, from family planning to social pensions systems that support the elderly. One chapter looks exclusively at population policy, sex ratio and fertility in China.

A spur to action?

A shift to a consistent, nationwide two-child policy is a step in the right direction, Eggleston said, and it is unlikely to translate to a boom in the birthrate.

Some areas of the country and specific couples already enjoyed a two-child policy due to local policy differences and an earlier national policy easing. In 2013, the Chinese government allowed couples with a husband or wife from a single-child family to have a second child.

Chinese cities that never had a one-child policy to begin with, like Hong Kong and Macau, have very low fertility. A recent article in China Journal noted that, despite the ubiquity of the one-child policy campaign, China’s rapid economic development since 1980 deserves the “lion’s share of credit” for reduced births as the country’s total fertility rate has declined.

“The real question is how responsive the Chinese will be,” Eggleston said. “It’s not clear that there will be a noticeable response in the short or medium-term.”

Implementation of the policy will take time, but China will work “quite expeditiously” to apply such policies so that people’s expectations are met. Alongside legal change of China’s varying local policies, it’s expected that China will employ several public education campaigns and its cadre of family planning staff as conduits for disseminating the new national policy, Eggleston said.


A 1986 poster highlights China's one-child policy.

Credit: Flickr/Collection Stefan R. Landsberger, International Institute of Social History (Amsterdam).


But other factors are at play, too, such as urbanization and changes in labor force participation.

“Young and middle-aged couples will be thinking twice about having another child because of education expense, job demands and the need to support aging parents,” Eggleston said.

paper published by Eggleston and three other scholars in the Journal of Labor & Development analyzed how employment of females from rural areas affected fertility, using data from a survey of 2,355 married women in China. The survey examined “off-farm” employment, which was defined as travel to another village, town or city for work.

The researchers found that off-farm employment for those women reduced the probability of having more than one child by 54.8 percent and the probability of preferring more than one child by 49.6 percent. An earlier blog piece on VoxEU highlighted those research outcomes.

Another aspect of China’s demographic change is gender imbalance. Male preference has long been a cultural factor in China and, with the pressures of the one-child policy, a cause behind its skewed population.

That reality will not dramatically change soon, Eggleston said. Even if the end to the one-child policy brought the sex ratio at birth back to normal levels, the existing imbalance of the younger population will create millions of “forced bachelors” among poorer men who cannot find brides, as well as a whole set of related issues.

Choice restored

What the policy assuredly does, though, is remove a barrier. Many Chinese women who before did not have the opportunity to give birth to a second child, now have that opportunity.

“This is a crucial arena of choice restored to the Chinese,” Eggleston wrote of the 2013 policy relaxation in a brief presented at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Previously, the absence of such a freedom led some couples to face substantial fines from the government, depending on the local variation of the one-child policy.

“Regardless of the new policy, demographic trends point to the importance of investing in child education, nutrition and skill development,” Eggleston said.

A similar message is carried in a chapter in Policy Challenges, co-authored by Sanghyop Lee and Qiulin Chen, who suggest that putting resources toward human capital development – education and health – can offset the destabilizing effects of demographic transition.

Research being done by FSI’s Rural Education Action Program led by Stanford professor Scott Rozelle works to directly inform education, health and nutrition policy in China.

Spending more on education – particularly for women and girls – is win-win. It complements pro-employment policies, and boosts productivity for women and the economy as a whole, Eggleston said.

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