The first systematic examination of China’s fertility policy and practice reveals that, despite government exemptions in rural areas, 63 percent of Chinese couples are strictly limited to one child. Furthermore, the policy has proven remarkably effective, with actual birth rates decreasing nearly to the mandated levels.
The study, which involved researchers in the United States and China, is the first to use data on fertility policy and population growth collected from 420 Chinese prefectures (districts comparable to U.S. counties).
“We want to clear up confusion about the one-child policy,” said Wang Feng, sociology professor at UC Irvine and a lead author of the study. “Despite what some say, the policy has not been ‘relaxed’ over the years.”
Published in the current issue of the journal Population and Development Review, the study reveals the complexity of the one-child policy. For example, it details the kinds of exceptions within prefectures for couples who give birth to a girl first, and for parents who themselves come from a one-child family.
“The system of exemptions resembles the American tax code in its complexity,” Wang said. “But this does not change the fact that the one-child policy applies without exception to a significant majority of Chinese couples.”
China’s average mandated fertility rate, accounting for the variety of exceptions across the country, is 1.47 children per couple, Wang and his collaborators found, and their analysis of census data shows the actual fertility rate is about 1.5 children per couple.
“Such convergence between policy and reality is extraordinary, even for China,” he said. “With the birth rate below replacement level, the country faces serious negative consequences in the long run if it fails to phase out the policy.”
Wang, a demographer who has studied the one-child policy for more than a decade, notes that the law’s success is contributing to an increasing proportion of older Chinese citizens, a shrinking workforce, and a disproportionate number of males to females.
Except for the United States, most Western countries have below-replacement birth rates, due not to government regulations but to factors such as shifting family values and economic pressures, Wang says. He plans to explore how similar motives may affect birth rates in China, even for couples who legally can have a second or third child.
“No country has yet to reverse the trend of below-replacement birth rates, so China’s next step regarding its one-child policy will be an important one,” Wang says. He notes that a plan to phase out the policy does not appear to be a government priority.
Wang’s co-authors are Gu Baochang from Renmin University of China, Guo Zhigang from Peking University, and Zhang Erli, former Director of Statistics and Planning of the State Family Planning Commission of China.
Their research was funded by grants from the Ford Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
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