Thirty-years ago, China's Communist party created a policy intended to limit the country's explosive population growth and improve overall economic conditions. Since that time, the widely hated one-child limit has led to forced abortions, sterilizations and even infanticide. Now, Chinese officials are taking a closer look at the policy, as some demographers warn that China is facing the opposite problem: not enough babies.
Family size has dropped dramatically in China since the 1970s, when the average Chinese woman had five to six children. Today, China's fertility rate is just 1.5 children per woman. Most families have just one child, but exceptions allow multiple children for ethnic minorities and a second one for rural families whose first baby is a girl. There is also a little-known exception that allows a second child when both parents are single children themselves. Still, few families in China are choosing to have more than one child.
In a survey of 18,638 women in Dafeng and six other counties in Jiangsu province, 69 percent of those eligible to have a second child said they would stop at one, with economics being the major factor.
If China's current fertility rate holds, the country's population will peak at 1.4 billion in 2026 and then start shrinking, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By the end of this century, China's population would be cut almost in half to 750 million, according to a model developed by Wang Feng, a demographer at the University of California, Irvine. That would still be two and a half times bigger than the U.S. today. But the problem lies not just in the numbers, but how they are distributed.
As China's population shrinks, which is projected to begin in about 15 years, the country may find itself with the wrong mix of people: too few young workers to support an aging population. The government and families will have to tap savings to care for the elderly, reducing funds for investment and driving up interest rates. At the same time, labor costs will likely rise as the workforce shrinks, hurting China's economic competitiveness by driving up wages.
Officially, the Chinese government is not yet ready to change the one-child policy. But it has commissioned feasibility studies on what would happen if it eliminated the policy or stopped enforcing it. Many experts think that rather than completely eliminating the policy (which might anger Chinese families who underwent forced abortions or sterilizations,) the country will instead slowly dismantle the policy over time until it is nothing more than a painful memory in Chinese history.