Counting the cost of China's one-child policy

It may be having an impact that extends further, and deeper, than some people realize.

The Wall Street Journal notes:

Is one really best?

New census data from China suggest the economic costs of Beijing’s one-child policy are more serious than the government is prepared to acknowledge.

The government claims the fertility rate, the number of children an average woman is expected to have over the course of her life, is 1.8. That is lower than the 2.1 needed to keep a population stable.

But what if the government is being optimistic? Chinese demographers have been arguing that the fertility rate actually is considerably lower than official claims suggest. The results of a decennial population census by the National Bureau of Statistics in 2010 shows they might be right. Prof. Wang Feng, a specialist on China’s demographics at the Brookings-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, says the census data confirm the fertility rate is 1.5 or below.

The difference between 1.8 and 1.5 might not seem that great. But with a population as large as China’s and over a long time horizon, the consequences of small differences in the fertility rate are far reaching. If the fertility rate has been running at 1.8, the working-age population will be close to a billion through 2030, according to projections by the United Nations. A rate of 1.5 means it peaks in 2015 and by 2030 is down to 940 million, according to projections by the U.S Census Bureau.

According to Conference Board chief economist Bart van Ark, an expanding labor force contributed an average 0.9 percentage point annually to China’s economic growth during the first 20 years of the reform era, which started in the late 1970s. Even as growth accelerated, a surplus supply of workers kept wages down and inflation low. In the first decade of the 21st century, the annual change in consumer prices averaged just 1.9%.

Whoever is right about the fertility rate, there will be no more positive contribution to growth from increases in the labor force. On either set of projections, the size of the labor force already has peaked. After 2015, if the government is right that the work force will stay stable, there will be no negative impact on the growth rate. If the demographers are right, a shrinking work force will mean a drag on gross-domestic-product growth.

Meantime, this report indicates that the Chinese people themselves are increasingly concerned about being able to even afford more than one child:

With ever-rising costs in cities such as Beijing, the question for many is not whether they want another child but whether they can bear the cost.

“I can’t even get this one into kindergarten,” complained housewife Li Tong, 29, out walking with her three-year-old son in Beijing’s fashionable Sanlitun shopping district.

“Education is a real concern for us. I have many friends who don’t want children at all. One is enough for me.”

Like the residents of Hong Kong and Singapore, which have among the world’s lowest birthrates, China’s urbanites are starting to believe that the expense of maintaining larger families outweighs the benefits.

That’s the view of Wang Gui, 35 and father of a four-year-old boy.

“We actually would like another, and according to current rules we can,” said Wang, who works for one of China’s state-owned oil giants. “But I think the cost would be prohibitive.”

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7 responses to “Counting the cost of China's one-child policy”

  1. About 3 years ago HBO did a documentary about the personal cost of the one child policy, and the rash of kidnappings of young girls. There are so many kidnappings, that parents are requested not to report it, or else the parents may go to jail for publicizing this inconvenient truth.

    I wasn’t expecting much, b/c it was HBO, but I will never forget it. A father who kidnaps kids in his spare time, offers random women money in parks to sell their kids to him, then he sells one of his own sons. And his other son was old enough to know what his father had done. China is a country in trouble.

  2. Mao encouraged the Chinese to have large families — he said, “Each mouth to feed comes with two hands to work.”

    The irony, of course, is that in free societies, this is true. But in kleptocratic countries, people are liabilities not assets.

  3. For anyone interested, I recommend the book, The Lost Daughters of China, by Karin Evans. Many of us in the China adoptive community have found it to be a compelling book that really gets to the heart of the matter, and the real cost to people’s lives.

  4. There is also a growing problem with spoiled boys, due to the parents over-indulging of the only child. Girls are made to feel less wanted than boys. Then you have a new generation that doesn’t have any experience with what a real family is. No brothers, no sisters. Now these children have grown up so their children have no aunts or uncles. Communists have no respect for natural law. They are materialists and pragmatists. If it works now, or seems to, then do it. Don’t worry about tomorrow.

  5. Other problem is that a massive bachelor herd that comes of age is tempting to use as a military force.

  6. One small, yet beautiful, blessing of this policy is my good friends’ adoption of a beautiful baby girl from China. She is now 5 ( I think) and tearing up the place ( in a good way ). They have also adopted a relative’s little girl; so a nice sized “typical” Catholic family. 😉

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