The country's birthrate has fallen off a cliff. A few years ago this would have been hailed as a policy triumph, but today it heralds a demographic crisisby Isabel Hilton / January 30, 2019 / Leave a comment
In the early 1960s, as a direct result of Mao Zedong’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, China was gripped by a catastrophic three-year famine. Up to 50m people starved to death and unsurprisingly the birthrate, which had soared in the previous decade, fell precipitously. Last year, according to figures recently published by the Chinese government, China’s birthrate was even lower than it was at the height of that famine.
One irony of these startling statistics is that they would have been hailed as a policy triumph just a decade ago, when the cruel and draconian “one child” policy—enforced through heavy fines, forced abortions, sterilisation and job losses—was still at its height. That policy was abandoned three years ago when the government began to worry about the impacts of its rapidly ageing population on economic growth and announced that thenceforth it would permit couples to have a second child. Few appeared to listen. After a small uptick in the first year, the birth rate has continued its steady decline. Now the policy debate includes the threat of economic sanctions for failing to have children, as growing a family has gone from a semi-criminal activity to a patriotic duty. Posters in the capital and other cities now urge couples to get on with it for the sake of the nation.
Despite decades of perverse effects, the government appears to have failed to learn the obvious lesson: that birthrates are not determined by Party fiat, but by a wide range of economic and social factors, the most important of which is the freedom women have to make decisions about their lives. In 1979, when the one child policy was imposed, China’s birthrate was already declining sharply as it was in several of China’s neighbours in Asia.
In Taiwan for example, development, education and more readily available contraception created real options for women, and the birthrate fell as they chose those new-found opportunities. Something similar was already happening in China in the 1970s, despite a different system and, at the time, a lower rate of development. By the 1990s Deng Xiaoping’s policies of reform and opening were creating urban factory jobs for millions of rural women, one of the least privileged groups in the entire country, giving them new status, cash in their pockets and choices about their lives.