Reversing the One-Child Policy Isn’t As Easy As Just Ending It

(Bloomberg) --

Jenny Jiang lives in Beijing. She says she has a thriving career as a tech executive, a great apartment, a husband, and one baby. But that’s it for her: she’s done having kids.

That’s a big problem for China, a country struggling with declining fertility rates. With slower population growth, comes slower economic growth. There are fewer people working, producing, and consuming goods, and fewer people to support a rapidly aging population. 

Three years ago, faced with this demographic crisis, the Chinese government loosened its famous One-Child Policy to allow any couple to have two children, hoping that women like Jiang would opt for more children. 

So far, that’s not happening. Last year, China’s birth rate fell to its lowest level in 70 years.

The One-Child Policy was the product of a different kind of fertility problem, a worldwide boom that many demographers feared would lead to overpopulation and mass resource shortages. When it was first proposed in 1979, China was still recovering from the Cultural Revolution, which had led to poverty and hunger across the country. The policy’s architects wanted to stop further population growth at all costs.

“The idea is that if you have fewer births next year, you do not need to feed them,” says Wang Feng, a sociology professor at the University of California at Irvine and an expert on Chinese demographics. Even at the time, skeptics worried about the eventual drag on the country’s economy, Wang says, but it was seen as “a policy of necessity, not of choice.”

China is far from the only country dealing with low fertility rates: the U.S., Japan, Italy, Germany, and many other advanced economies are all struggling to boost population growth. As women have entered the labor market, they’ve opted for fewer kids—or none at all. 

Because of the One-Child Policy, however, China’s problem is especially severe. A cultural preference for male children over female resulted in a population where men now outnumber women by 30 million. Jenny Jiang is part of a generation of only children now expected to care for their parents in old age in addition to working and raising their own families.

China’s government has taken certain steps to encourage couples to have more children, including offering paid parental leave and housing subsidies, even sponsoring dating meetups for young singles. Those have yet to produce a favorable effect. “The demographic reality has changed, but—I would say it’s a sexist mentality—the state’s mentality has not changed,” Wang says. “When birth control needed to be exercised, it was the job of women.”

Now that low fertility is a pressing issue, Wang adds, policymakers are putting the burden back on women to turn that around. “There’s a total absence of understanding of women’s rights and women’s reasons why they have children or don’t have children.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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