The narrative of China’s success often hinges on its particular 20th-century demographic advantage: The country’s Communist rulers were able to mobilize a huge pool of impoverished workers to fuel an unprecedented transformation that made the world’s most populous nation into a global manufacturing powerhouse. But after years of rapid industrialization and urbanization, China is experiencing a demographic slump on par with countries in the developed world, with declining birthrates, an aging population and a growing gender gap.
China’s birthrate dropped 15 percent last year — a reflection of the intense toll of the pandemic, but also broader trends of rising costs of housing and education in China’s teeming cities. Nearly 20 percent of the Chinese population is now aged 60 or above, according to the latest census data. By the start of the next decade, according to research by Morgan Stanley, close to 124 million more people will have entered the age category of 55 and above, the largest demographic increase among age categories and a sign of a rapidly graying population.
This is all largely thanks to the legacy of Beijing’s heavy-handed “one-child” policy, which was brought into effect four decades ago to tamp down a surging population. For years, authorities implemented the policy unevenly and often brutally, with millions of forced abortions and sterilizations likely carried out. In 2016, in a tacit recognition of the damage done, China relaxed its protocols to allow married couples to have two children. But the country’s birthrate still dropped the next four consecutive years.
The latest edict smacks of a mounting sense of panic within the halls of power. “As new data exposed the vulnerabilities in China’s growth model, calls among the public — from demographers to central bank officials and entrepreneurs — for scrapping restrictions on family size have gained urgency,” wrote my colleague Lily Kuo. “Yet China’s leaders stopped short of completely dropping the deeply unpopular family-planning regime in place since 1980 — often brutally enforced, through forced abortions, sterilizations and steep fines. Keeping the limits in place, researchers say, is a way to maintain control.”
That control took various forms in the preceding decades. Human rights activists and journalists documented myriad cases of forced sterilizations, as well as an opaque and often cruel system of punishments and fines for those found to be violating the one-child rule.
“Local officials had wide discretion in determining how much to fine violators. Sums could range from a multiple of two to 10 times annual household income,” wrote Mei Fong in “One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment.” “People had no way of figuring out ahead of time what they were liable for, and two sets of violators, under similar circumstances, might pay vastly different penalties. In 2010, a family-planning official apparently imposed a fine of 5 million yuan, or over $800,000, on a violator.”
“What can be said is that China’s policy produced a lot of one-child families — today the country has about 150 million of them — and perhaps tens of millions of abortions and sterilizations, many of them involuntary,” noted the Economist in 2019. “Corrupt and brutal family-planning officials demolished the homes of some who resisted. Women had their menstrual cycles recorded on blackboards, for all to see. As birth quotas bit, gender ratios became more skewed by infanticide and sex-selective abortions of girls.”
Few experts believe the new rules will be able to redress the harm inflicted over multiple generations. “The three-child policy is a step forward, but the question is: If the two-child policy did not mean people had more children, will that happen under a three-child policy?” Sun Xiaomei, a professor at China Women’s University, told Kuo.
“A comprehensive policy package ranging from tax incentives, education and housing subsidies, more generous maternity leave, universal provision of child care” is needed for the three-child policy to be effective, Liu Li-Gang, managing director and chief China economist at Citigroup, told Bloomberg News.
China’s Politburo indicated it will prioritize addressing some of these mounting social needs, though it offered few specifics on its plans. As Kuo reported, myriad commenters on Chinese social media speculated over the shift in official policy and whether the central government would move toward punishing those not procreating. One Weibo user wrote on the microblog site, “Whether you change the policy to five children or eight children, housing prices are still the best sterilization tool.”
China’s demographic turn is perhaps the most acute illustration of a global trend. The world’s population surged in the 20th century, growing from 1.6 billion in 1900 to around 6 billion in 2000. Now, forecasters predict that the majority of the world’s countries with the exception of some nations in sub-Saharan Africa will see a population decline by the end of the century. The United States, like China, also experienced its slowest population growth in almost a century over the last decade. According to research published last year in the Lancet, a British medical journal, 23 nations, including Japan and Italy, will have their populations halved by 2100.
This has radical implications for the future of global politics. “The strain of longer lives and low fertility, leading to fewer workers and more retirees, threatens to upend how societies are organized — around the notion that a surplus of young people will drive economies and help pay for the old,” noted the New York Times in May.
“It may also require a reconceptualization of family and nation. Imagine entire regions where everyone is 70 or older,” the Times wrote. “Imagine governments laying out huge bonuses for immigrants and mothers with lots of children. Imagine a gig economy filled with grandparents and Super Bowl ads promoting procreation.”