Why reform of China’s one-child policy has had little effect in boosting fertility levels | University of Oxford
A child in Tianjin, China
A child in Tianjin, China

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Why reform of China’s one-child policy has had little effect in boosting fertility levels

A new study suggests that the 2013 reforms aimed at relaxing China's 'one-child policy' are likely to have little effect on the country’s long-term demographic trends and the problem of China’s shrinking workforce.

It explores why China has only partially lifted its family planning restrictions, suggesting that local governments rely on the income from fines imposed on couples who violate the one-child policy, known as 'social maintenance fees'. It also argues that it is hard to dislodge the old system because of ‘policy inertia’ due to the vast family planning bureaucracy involved in implementing the one-child policy.

The findings by the University of Oxford and Xi'an Jiaotong University are published in the journal, Studies in Family Planning. The report explores what effect the reforms have had on eligible couples, who since 2013 have been allowed to have a second baby if either parent is an only child. Official estimates suggest that the reforms will lead to an 'extra million births a year'. However, the report argues that even if this forecast is accurate, the projected rise would have very little effect in addressing the challenges of China’s aging population and shrinking workforce.

The study highlights UN figures showing that China’s population aged 65 and above is set to almost triple from 9% in 2010 (or 114 million) to 24% (331 million) by 2050. By contrast, the working population aged 20-34 is projected to shrink from 25% (333 million) of the population in 2010 to 16% (228 million) by 2050. However, the study adds that even though the country has had below replacement fertility for more than 20 years, total population has still grown by around 200 million over the same period and is forecast to continue growing for another 15 years.

The report authors describe the 2013 reforms as 'relatively limited', suggesting that only a partial lifting of the one-child policy was born out of government fears that a large ‘unmet need’ for children would lead to a 'destabilising baby boom'. The authors also suggest that even those couples who might like to have a second child are not doing so because many are put off by the additional living and education costs entailed, also citing a lack of adequate childcare facilities as a problem.

Yet, the paper says the significance of the changes should not be underestimated, showing that China recognises a need to ‘reform and improve’ its present family planning policy. It asks whether China could follow other countries in the Asia Pacific in making the switch from policies that control the birth rate to policies that promote bigger families. However, it says governments in East Asia and elsewhere have found it easier to encourage couples to have fewer children than they have in persuading them to have larger families.

Tackling the real and perceived barriers to having children will need wide-ranging structural change, concludes the report. It suggests this will mean a review of the functions and financing of local government, as well as looking at what improvements can be made to reconcile work with family life.

Co-author Associate Professor Stuart Basten, from the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford, said: 'The future direction of fertility in China is critical to understanding the possible economic futures of the country as the country already has to adapt to a diminished pool of excess rural labour. Fulfilling the needs of the older population in China is a huge potential growth area, but having said that, the speed with which China's demographic dividend is disappearing is quite spectacular.

'Our research suggests that in order to overcome the barriers currently preventing more couples from having bigger families, there may have to be structural reform in local government and the introduction of more family-friendly policies.'

Co-author Associate Professor Quanbao Jiang, from Xi'an Jiaotong University, added: '2015 is a critical year for evaluating the effect of the reform. Now we and other colleagues are collecting data from individuals and administrators in China for further evaluation. It seems that further relaxation of the policy and a quick switch from antinatalist to pronatalist policy is necessary.'