The one-child policy defined China’s demographic transition for more than three decades.
But to combat an aging population and declining birth rates, the government abandoned the new two-child policy in 2016. Despite this sweeping change, China still faces a growing demographic crisis.
The above animated population pyramid from James Eagle shows the distribution of China’s population by age group since 1950, with projections through 2100.
How the one-child policy created a gender imbalance
Until 2016, the Chinese government had strictly enforced the one-child policy since 1979 and imposed huge fines for any violation of the rules. According to the government, this policy reduced the birth rate by 400 million over the years .
But it also led to selective abortion on the basis of gender because of a deep-seated cultural preference for boys. As a result, the gender balance in China has changed: In 2020, the sex ratio is 111 males per 100 females in the population between the ages of 0 and 4.
This shortage of women, often referred to as China’s “missing women,” is only expected to increase over time. According to the UN World Population Prospects, by 2050, China will have 244 million fewer women than men.
In addition, the country faces another inevitable consequence of the one-child policy: a rapidly aging population.
Why China’s population is aging after all
In 2020, China’s fertility rate – the expected number of children a woman will have in her lifetime – was 1.3.
Generally, fertility rates decline as the economy develops. However, China’s fertility rate is currently lower than that of the United States (1.64 in 2020) and is on par with countries such as Japan and Italy, whose populations are aging. Consequently, the population includes fewer newborns, while many of the working population is approaching retirement age.
Most Chinese workers retire by age 60. This is how China’s retirement-age population is projected to shape up by 2100 :
In 2021, people aged 60 and older accounted for nearly a fifth of China’s population. As the country’s population begins to shrink around 2030, more than 30 percent of all Chinese are expected to be in this age group.
China’s aging population threatens long-term economic growth as its labor force shrinks and low birth rates lead to fewer newborns, who will later become part of the working-age population. Fewer working people means lower overall consumption, a higher burden of care for the elderly, and slower economic growth.
So how will China respond to the coming crisis?
The three-child policy
According to the 2020 national census, Chinese mothers gave birth to 12 million children in 2020, the lowest number of births since 1949.
In response to these results, the government passed a new law allowing each couple to have up to three children. Despite the change, the high cost of raising a child may deter couples from having a third child.
It remains to be seen how the three-child policy helps combat China’s demographic crisis and what other policies the government will choose.
In any case, we will only know what the future holds for China.
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