Social conditions may have played a bigger role than government policy, writes Asia Sentinel’s Philip Bowring
For more than three decades the One-Child policy has been among the most discussed, praised and reviled aspects of post-Mao, reform-era China.
But the facts of China’s demographics over the past 50 years suggest that the impact of the policy has been vastly exaggerated so easing of it will similarly have a modest medium-term impact – though in the short term a baby boomlet is possible.
One-Child is credited by supporters with ending an exponential increase in the population of an already mostly over-crowded land. It is condemned for the authoritarian impulses which have sought to suppress individual and family choice, and the vicious manner in which it has sometimes been carried out with enforced – late term abortions and similar horrors.
Now that the policy is to be relaxed, according to the recent Communist Party plenum, it is widely assumed that the rapid aging of China’s population may begin to slow and China return to a fertility rate – 2.1 children per woman of fertile age – which ensures long-run stability in the population, not the decline currently projected.
By East Asian standards, there is almost nothing exceptional about China’s demographic trends over the past 50 years, whether during or after the Mao era when, according to officials, population increase was supposed to strengthen the nation. The decline in fertility in China for half a century almost exactly parallels that of Thailand, a socially and sexually more open society which did no more to promote it than advertise the benefits of smaller families and make condoms easily and cheaply available.
The dominance in the public and especially foreign mind of the One-Child slogan over reality is surprising because the facts are clear-cut. Whether one uses the total fertility rate or the crude birth rate as a yardstick, the significant decline in births began in the mid-1960s. This might be attributable to the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution, the period 1970-75 – when Mao was still alive. The fertility rate saw a steep drop that speeded further in the second half of the 1970s even though the One-Child policy was not introduced until the end of the decade. Nonetheless, that decade saw the fertility rate fall by 50 percent and the crude birth rate by 33 percent.
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