China Tries to Correct Demographic Course but It May Already Be Too Late

The One-child policy was a huge mistake, robbed China of priceless human capital

It will be hard to promote childbirth now, but without historic population control measures China might have had hundreds of millions more people now

Global Times: China may reward families with more children next year: demographers.

China may reward families with a second child or more next year to arrest its dropping fertility rate, and the family planning policy will undergo fundamental changes, Chinese demographers said.

Their remarks came after reports that China’s National Health Commission (NHC) is studying the possibility of rewarding families with more children.

Although not immediately confirmed by the NHC as of press time, demographers interviewed by the Global Times on Thursday said that they believe China may introduce incentives to families the next year, if not sooner, considering the drop in new births.

Demographer He Yafu told the Global Times that the NHC’s study was said to only target families having a second child and not those with three or more children, and it’s very likely that China will officially introduce the policy next year.

It’s funny to see China going from a rigid One Child Policy to Russian/Hungarian-style pro-natalism within the space of no more than four years.

However, such turnarounds aren’t exactly unprecedented in the history of Communist regimes. Mao was a pro-natalist. The One Child Policy was adopted in 1979, three years after the death of the Great Helmsman. (Still, even that reversal was quite tame by the standards of, say, Ceausescu’s Romania).

Anyhow, there’s considerable confusion even over the current level of Chinese TFR.

1. The Ministry of Health and Family Planning claims that it is around 1.5-1.6 children per woman, and has been so since the mid-1990s. This is the figure that is most often quoted in the media.

2. The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) presents much more pessimistic figures stretching back to at least the turn of the millennium: 1.24 in 2017, 1.29 in 2016, 1.05 in 2015, 1.18 in 2010, 1.33 in 2005, and 1.22 in 2000.

This is a rather huge discrepancy, especially for such a major and central country. (I admit to being amazed that isn’t that much data on this topic, though one would might think it’s far more important than 98% of what the Blue Checkmark pundits blather on about).

FWIW, my personal assessment is that it is the latter, more pessimistic figures that are correct.

Three separate lines of evidence for that:

1. Census data

Guang-zhou, Wang & Chong-hui (2010): New fertility changes and characteristics from the sixth population census in China:

However, does such a low fertility rate present the true picture of the situation in China? In fact, debates regarding China’s fertility level have existed for a long time, especially after the 2000 census, because serious inconsistencies were found between the results of the National Population and Family Planning Commission and the survey results of the National Bureau of Statistics. Specifically, the total fertility rate of the 2000 census was 1.22; however, the National Population and Family Planning Commission as well as the Study of National Population Development Strategy believed the total fertility rate to be about 1.8.

The total fertility rates from the surveys of the National Bureau of Statistics and the National Population and Family Planning Commission were between 1.4 and 1.6 thereafter; however, a gap remained between the level of TFR recognized by the National Population and Family Planning Commission and the actual survey results. The 2006 survey results of the National Population and Family Planning Commission was the only exception: This survey found the total fertility rate to be 1.87, which was close to the level consistently recognized by the National Population and Family Planning Commission./p>

Previous studies have found that the fertility level of rural childbearing-age women is consistently higher than that of their urban counterparts due to the dual urban-rural structure of China’s family planning policy and regional differences in the process of fertility transition. The fertility level of childbearing-age women with primary (or below) education levels are higher than that of those with middle school (or higher) education levels. 

The 2000 census data showed that the total fertility rate of rural childbearing-age women was 1.43, and the total fertility rate of these women with primary (or below) education level was 1.49. Given that the proportion of urban citizens was greater than 45%, we can infer that the total fertility rate of childbearing-age women should be less than 1.43 from the 2000 national census. Furthermore, it was virtually impossible to have a total fertility rate higher than that of rural childbearing-age women (1.49) with primary (or below) education level. In addition, the 2010 census revealed that the total fertility rate of rural childbearing-age women was 1.44; based on these data, we conclude that the fertility rate of childbearing-age women in 2010 should be less than 1.44. Moreover, it was virtually impossible to have a total fertility rate higher than that of rural Chinese childbearing-age women with primary (or below) education levels (1.64 in 2010).

In addition, the 2010 census data regarding age structure can be used to indirectly estimate the history of changes in the fertility level of childbearing-age women from 2000-2010. This estimation shows that the fertility rates in 2000, 2005, and 2010 were approximately 1.34, 1.43, and 1.29, respectively. In short, a conservative estimate based on the available data showed that the total fertility rate in 2010 should be less than 1.44, and the chance of it being higher than 1.64 is minimal.

2. Studies consistently show that China has very low desired fertility even by developed world standards.

Basten, Stuart & Quanbao Jiang (2015) – Fertility in China: An uncertain future

As Hou et al. (2014) report, the mean desired number of children in 63 studies of urban fertility preferences in the period 2000–10 was just 1.50 (SD 0.25). The mean in 52 studies in rural areas over the same period was 1.82 (SD 0.36). While a number of caveats should be made about equivalence across studies in these meta-reviews, and about respondent bias (see Basten and Gu 2013, pp. 29–31), these findings appear to be robust. They are consonant with the results of other qualitative studies (e.g., Nie and Wyman 2005) and with data from nationally representative surveys.

Assuming a 50/50 urban-rural split, China’s desired fertility rate would be equal to Germany’s, which is the least breeder-ish country in the EU, along with Austria.

Alber, Jens, Fahey, & Saraceno (2007) – Handbook of Quality of Life in Enlargement Europe. For comparison, current figure for both Russian and American women is around 2.2-2.5 children.

In post-traditionalist societies, there is usually at least a 0.5 child shortfall between actual fertility, and desired fertility. This suggests that we should expect China to have a TFR of around 1.25.

3. Comparison with countries with not too dissimilar demographic profiles.

The Chinese population pyramid should be somewhat similar to Iran: Both countries saw strong demographic expansion prior to the 1980s, then a massive slowdown as the effect of family planning policies kicked in (e.g. Iran was projected to have a population of 122 million in 2025 by the UN in the 1980s; its current population is just 80 million, and is highly unlikely to exceed 100 million during this century).

Current TFR of Iran is around 1.7 children per woman, at a birth rate of 19/100,000. China’s birth rate has been 12/100,000 since the early 2000s. This again makes it consistent with a TFR that is 0.5 children lower than the oft quoted figures.

If this is all true, then China should have really moved from One Child Policy to pro-natalism at least a decade ago, if not two.

I wonder if the reason it didn’t could have had anything to do with the leadership not getting clear signals that Chinese fertility had already fallen into the doldrums by the turn of the millennium.

As I understand it, the One Child Policy was itself inspired by the neo-Malthusian gloom of those times, adjusted for Western intellectual trends coming a decade late to the Communist world; Paul R. Ehrlich had published his famous(ly wrong) book Population Bomb a decade earlier, in 1968. The CPC may also have been concerned about industrial gains getting eaten by population growth. A more human capital-centered/biorealistic viewpoint on the economy might have helped them escape this trap, and China today might have 1.6 billion people instead of 1.3 billion, and a younger population.

Source: The Unz Review