Did China's One-Child Policy Really Have an Effect?

Thursday, October 27, 2016
China One Child

Thinkstock/XiXinXing

By Guillaume Vandenbroucke, Research Officer and Economist

In 1980, China put its well-known one-child policy into law. Family planning already existed, but the implementation of the one-child policy was, on the surface, the most drastic step toward curbing population growth in China.

After 30 years, the policy has been phased out. In 2013, the Chinese government authorized parents to have two children if one of them is an only child. By 2016, two children were allowed for all parents.

How effective were the Chinese in controlling their demography? Was the one-child policy effective? Will the removal of the policy lead to an increase in births?

The last question is, of course, the most critical today. This is because the main motivation for removing the one-child policy seems to be that Chinese authorities fear the aging of their population.

China One Child

The figure above shows China’s total fertility rate, a measure of the number of births a woman who enters her reproductive life in a given year would have. Women entering their reproductive lives in the 1960s gave birth to an average of about six children. Today, this number is between one and two.

Births Already on the Decline

What is remarkable about this figure is that it shows a dramatic decline in fertility before the one-child policy was put in place. Fertility fell from more than six in the mid-1960s to less than three in 1980.

This raises questions as to the need for, and possibly the effectiveness of, the policy. Suppose that, whatever the causes of this decline were, they were still acting after the policy was put into place. This would imply that the one-child policy itself may not have been as effective as it may appear.

Why the Pre-Policy Decline?

There are two leading candidates for explaining the pre-1980 drop in fertility. First, family planning existed before the one-child policy became a part of it. Pressure was placed on Chinese men and women about the “appropriate” age at which to marry, about the number of children to have and about how rapidly. A 1994 paper by researchers Judith Banister and Christina Wu Harbaugh argued that these measures alone were effective enough to explain the pre-1980 decline, before the one-child limit.1

Second, China was growing during the 1970s. It is therefore possible that it experienced the same declining trend in fertility caused by growth that all currently developed countries experienced at some point. This is typically referred to as the “demographic” transition.

What will happen to Chinese fertility as family planning (the one-child policy in particular) is removed from law? This, of course, no one knows. But some ideas can be entertained.

Return to the notion of the demographic transition, i.e., that fertility tends to decline as countries get richer. It is well-known that China grew fast over the past 20 years. Thus, it is possible that today’s fertility rate should be low, and people may not want to have two children even if allowed.

If this is the case, then Chinese births may not increase in the near future or may do so only very slightly. China’s aging problem will take decades to solve.

Notes and References

1 Banister, Judith; and Harbaugh, Christina Wu. “China’s Family Planning Program: Inputs and Outcomes,” Census Bureau’s Center for International Research, CIR Staff Paper No. 73, June 1994.

Additional Resources

Posted In Labor  |  Tagged guillaume vandenbrouckechinaone-child policydemographics
Commenting Policy: We encourage comments and discussions on our posts, even those that disagree with conclusions, if they are done in a respectful and courteous manner. All comments posted to our blog go through a moderator, so they won't appear immediately after being submitted. We reserve the right to remove or not publish inappropriate comments. This includes, but is not limited to, comments that are:
  • Vulgar, obscene, profane or otherwise disrespectful or discourteous
  • For commercial use, including spam
  • Threatening, harassing or constituting personal attacks
  • Violating copyright or otherwise infringing on third-party rights
  • Off-topic or significantly political
The St. Louis Fed will only respond to comments if we are clarifying a point. Comments are limited to 1,500 characters, so please edit your thinking before posting. While you will retain all of your ownership rights in any comment you submit, posting comments means you grant the St. Louis Fed the royalty-free right, in perpetuity, to use, reproduce, distribute, alter and/or display them, and the St. Louis Fed will be free to use any ideas, concepts, artwork, inventions, developments, suggestions or techniques embodied in your comments for any purpose whatsoever, with or without attribution, and without compensation to you. You will also waive all moral rights you may have in any comment you submit.
comments powered by Disqus

The St. Louis Fed uses Disqus software for the comment functionality on this blog. You can read the Disqus privacy policy. Disqus uses cookies and third party cookies. To learn more about these cookies and how to disable them, please see this article.

Subscribe to
On the Economy

Get notified when new content is available on our On the Economy blog.

Email Alerts  |  RSS

About the Blog

The St. Louis Fed On the Economy blog features relevant commentary, analysis, research and data from our economists and other St. Louis Fed experts.


Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis or of the Federal Reserve System.

Contact Us

For media-related questions, email mediainquiries@stls.frb.org. For all other blog-related questions or comments, email on-the-economy@stls.frb.org.

Categories