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China's One Child Policy

By Brian Carnell

Wednesday, May 17, 2000

     One of the more extreme measures taken in an attempt to control population has been China’s one-child policy. Some environmentalists and population advocates ranging from Garrett Hardin to media mogul Ted Turner have suggested the rest of the world adopt similar policies. Unfortunately for Hardin, Turner and others, when you get beyond the mythology and seriously examine the one-child policy, it is clear the policy is not viable even if one can stomach the horrendous human rights violations it entails.

     Following the consolidation of politically power by the Communists in China, the nation’s population exploded. Annual population growth exceeded 2 percent for most years between 1949 and 1974 (Tien et al 1992, p.6). Beginning in the mid-1970s, however, China abruptly shifted gears and fertility declined dramatically. The annual population growth rate has remained around 1.5 percent since the mid-1970s.

     This sequence of events is significant mainly for this reason -- the one-child policy wasn’t adopted by China until 1979, yet China’s huge fertility drop occurred between 1970 and 1979 when live births fell from 34 per 1,000 people to 18 per 1,000 people. Since the introduction of the one-child policy in 1979, there has been no large drop in fertility and in fact China experienced a slight increase fluctuating around 21 births per 1,000 people in the 1980s (Tien, et al 1992, pp.6-8). As Tien, et al put it, the impact of the one-child policy has been minimal:

The TFR [Total Fertility Rate] never fell below a 2.5 child-per woman average in rural areas, although it dropped to about 1.2 in urban areas. By the mid-1980s, less than one-fifth of all eligible married couples had signed the one-child certificate -- a contract which granted couples and their child economic and educational advantages in return for promising not to have more than one child. Throughout the 1980s, nearly half of all reported births were second, third, or higher order births. Various surveys suggested that the desire to have at least two children remained strong among Chinese couples (Tien, et al 1992, p.11).

      Why did the one-child policy fail? The likely explanation is that there are limits to how far government policies can push demographic changes. Policies emphasizing later marriage and fewer children in the 1970s clearly played a part in lowering total fertility rates. Contraceptive usage in China by the early 1980s, for example, was extraordinarily high for Asia at 71 percent of women of reproductive age.

     The one-child policy, however, was strongly resisted by people, especially couples living in rural regions. Enforcing the one-child policy in the face of such heavy resistance would have required more forceful measures than the Chinese government was willing to use. This is the source of criticism of China from population advocates such as Garrett Hardin who argued China needs to more strictly enforce the one-child policy.

     Finally, the one-child policy and the successful resistance to it should give pause to claims made in Western nations that there are up to 500,000 "missing" girls in China. The usual claim is that the "missing" girl phenomenon is caused by infanticide. In fact a far more likely explanation is that Chinese couples systematically fail to report the birth of girls. Tien et al note that figures on the sex ratios of adoptions bear this out:

Adoptions rose sharply in the 1980s. There were over 500,000 cases in 1987 and about 400,000 per year between 1984 and 1986, compared with fewer than 200,000 before the one-child policy. The extremely low sex ratios of 27 to 36 boys per 100 girls among the adopted children are not surprising; parents traditionally are more likely to give away girls, a practice that intensified under the one-child stipulation. When the adopted children by year of adoption are added to their respective cohort of births, the sex ratio at birth comes closer to normal for the years in question. This reduces the number of missing girls by half (Tien, et al 1996, pp.15-17).

     In addition, girls in China, like girls in much of the developing world, receive far less attention and resources than boys. As a result the sex ratio of infant deaths in China averaged 114 over the 1980s (Tien et al 1996, p.16-7).

     This low ratio suggest that girls receive less care and attention than boys in many Chinese homes, reducing the chance of survival of girls beyond their first birthday. Most importantly, this gender discrimination affects girls most adversely in the poorest areas (Tien, et al 1996, pp.16-17).

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