China’s one-child policy and the cultural bias of its population trajectory

China’s one-child policy which is replaced by a two-child policy in October 2015, was imposed by the Chinese Communist Party in 1980, under Deng Xiaoping. Its intention was as a means of controlling runaway population growth. At that time, China was much poorer than it is today. The policy limited most Chinese couples to having only one child. The overall impact of this measure has been profound. According to World Bank, from 1950 to 1980, China’s population grew by 81 percent,  outpacing world population growth, which increased by 76 percent, over those three decades. From 1980 to 2013, however, world population has grown by 61 percent,  while China’s population grew by only 41 percent.
China today faces a different demographic challenge from the one it faced in 1980 when the One-Child Policy took effect. It now has too few working-age people to sustain its booming economy and to support its aging population. The pivot point in China’s working-age population of those between the ages of 15 and 59, where it began shrinking, not growing, occurred between 2011 and 2012. The working-age population fell by 3.4 million, from 940.7 million in 2011 to 937.3 million in 2012, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics.
The 2014 decline was even larger, at 3.7 million. The shrinking of China’s working-age population will dampen the prospects of future economic growth. It will also mean that a shrinking working-age population is working to support a growing retirement-age population. In the absence of major shifts or policy changes, the UN projects that China’s over-60 population by 2050 will be similar to the share in Europe or in Japan, which today is the fastest-aging developed country in the world.
According to Washington Post, Chinese officials in late 2013 proposed a relaxation of the policy, allowing all couples who were themselves sole children to have two children. Even so, demographers estimated that change would result only in 1-2 million more births per year which is a relatively small overall impact. Two years later, in October 2015, the Chinese government revised the entire policy to two children for all couples.
Chinese culture has traditionally favored male offspring, especially in rural parts of the country. Sons are preferred so that they can carry out farm work, provide financial support for aging parents and ensure the continuance of the family name. The One-Child Policy and other legal restrictions on fertility inadvertently placed an even higher premium on bearing male children. Inexpensive ultrasound machines even in the countryside have made it possible for prospective parents to identify the gender of children and abort female fetuses. In 2005, China had 119 male births for every 100 female births, according to a study published in 2009 in the British Medical Journal.
A cultural bias towards male heirs is creating a vast gender divide in China. According to British Medical Journal, China’s family planning policy of the 1970s, an urgent and necessary measure to limit the growth of its huge population, prevented an estimated 400 million additional births in the world’s most populous country. Although the “one child policy” was particularly effective in urban areas, in rural areas many families continued to have two or more children, even when all the children are boys.
The British Medical Journal study further explained that although the Chinese government still bans the use of tests to determine the fetus’ gender for non-medical reasons, these tests are still widely done, mainly in private clinics in the countryside. While many countries ban abortion after 12 or sometimes 24 weeks of pregnancy, unless the mother’s life is at risk, China’s laws do not clearly prohibit or even define late-term abortion.
This situation has had serious demographic repercussions in recent times. There is a dwindling number of marriageable women and a large number of elderly born after the post-World War II baby boom. A study by Therese Hesketh, a lecturer at the Centre for International Health and Development at University College in London found that China now has 119 male births for every 100 girls, compared with 107 to 100 for industrialized countries. This imbalance is expected to worsen over the next two decades and provoke a host of social problems.
According to demographer Nicholas Eberstadt, China presents a unique situation. In an article for Foreign Affairs magazine, Eberstadt writes, “China will face a growing number of young men who will never marry due to the country’s one-child policy, which has resulted in a reported birth ratio of almost 120 boys for every 100 girls. By 2030, projections suggest that more than 25 percent  of Chinese men in their late 30s will never have married. The coming marriage squeeze will likely be even more acute in the Chinese countryside, since the poor, uneducated and rural population will be more likely to lose out in the competition for brides.”
China is already experiencing the effects of a surplus of unmarried young men. Unmarried men, who some experts call “bare branches,” can be a danger to social stability. Some experts on population problems believe that those men who have a limited social life because of the lack of a female companion are more prone to commit violent acts. In areas of China with the most male-biased sex ratios, there are social consequences such as increased gambling and drug abuse as well as increased kidnapping and trafficking of women.
In addition, some experts warn that these young men are perfect candidates for political agitation and fundamentalism. One of the reasons that parents prefer sons over daughters is the belief that sons will be better able to protect them in old age. However, the more assertive role that Chinese women now hold in society, combined with their having equal or higher salaries than men, can shatter this belief. In addition, some single women have greater spending power than their unmarried counterparts, which allows them a much more active social life.
In some cases, assertive women accept getting married on condition that the offspring will carry their family name, not their husband’s name. As Nicholas Eberstadt explains, the demographic and social problems posed by unmarried men can be considerable. According to him, more education, particularly of the young, on the value of women and the positive role they play in the family and in society is one of the necessary strategies to overcome this situation. This measure, complemented by enforcing the ban on sex-selective abortions, could lead to the normalization of the ratios between boys and girls in the country.

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