The Effects of China's One Child Policy

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22nd May 2017 Economics Reference this


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For the Dissertation, I am going to discuss the effects of China’s One-Child policy. The Literature Review will allow me to explain in depth, the views of authors in various pieces of literature, in and around this topic. I will be analysing the key themes in the texts and comparing their different points of views for each of the main themes of the Dissertation.

The One-Child Policy was initially introduced in China from 1979-1980, during which time China’s population amounted to a quarter of that of the world’s. Zhu (2003) explains how the government thought it was essential to put this policy into place to improve living standards, by controlling the growth of the population (Hesketh et al, 2005). Following the communist revolution in 1949, the country experienced many economic and social reforms which caused a mass increase in the population due to their effect in reducing mortality (Nie & Wyman, 2005). United Nations (2005) claim that the increase was roughly 80% between the years 1950-1980 (Nie & Wyman, 2005). In addition, the total fertility rate (TFR), was greater than 6 children per woman (Nie & Wyman, 2005).

As well as the reforms, it is believed that the population policy was another reason for the increase in China’s GDP growth (Yu, 2008). Yang (1996), argues that the more lenient, ‘Later, longer, fewer’ policy of later marriages, longer spaces in-between births and few children, aided the reduction in birth rate by almost a half (Yu, 2008). The campaign reduced the TFR from 5.9 to 2.9 between 1970-1979. The view of Yang (1996) is in agreement with that of Feng (2005), who expresses that many people believe there was no need for something as extreme as the one-child policy. The policy itself does not apply to the whole Chinese population; mainly people in urban areas and government officials. Additionally, there are many exceptions for families to have a second child, including: the birth of a first-born who is a girl, the birth of a baby with a disability, or if both the parents are from one-child families (Hesketh et al, 2005). Although China’s target population was 1.2 billion by 2000, the census in 2000 gave the population as 1.27 billion, which was seen to be underestimated as many officials manipulated the population figures to stay in line with the policy (Hesketh et al, 2005). The policy had many effects, some of which are explained in more depth below.

Socio-economic effects (pros and cons)

Familiar knowledge of the one-child policy gives rise to the conclusion that the policy led to a reduction in the fertility rate (Yang & Chen, 2004). Greenhalgh (2003) states that not only did the TFR decline, but it did so below sub-replacement levels. Bluett (2004), on the other hand, claims that the policy also caused living conditions to improve, and the poverty level to decline. Retherford et al (2005) carried out an investigation to show the differences in fertility by “urban/rural residences, education, ethnicity and migration status” (2005, pp.58). Results indicated that the one-child policy had significant effects on TFR as there was a decline in fertility in all of these areas. Although there are limitations to the analysis due to inaccuracy caused by the underreporting of children, the results still demonstrate that the TFR decreased to 1.5 to 1.6 children per woman, rather than the 1.2 indicated previously (Retherford et al, 2005). This causes debate, as to how reliable the official figures are as other people have estimated the figure to be around 1.8 children per woman (Sharping, 2003a, 2003b as seen in Retherford et al, 2005). However, analysis carried out by Guo (2003), illustrates that, the TFR did not reach 1.8, even after adjustments had been made to account for 20% of underreporting (Retherford et al, 2005). In fact, Zhang (2003, 2004) claims that the TFR was between 1.5-1.6 in 2000. This research shows that there is not one clear figure to show how much the TFR has declined and there had been much debate over this issue.

One result that is clear through the research, even though it may not be accurate, is that fertility rate has declined further in the 1990’s (Feng, 2005). This decline is “accompanied by a large increase in women’s labour force participation, but not necessarily in occupations dominated by men.” (Davis and van der Oever, 1982 as seen in Hong, 1987, pp.323) This could occur if women are not looking after their numerous children, as they then have more time to carry out other activities, for example having a job. However, since men were traditionally seen to be the earners in the family, after the policy was introduced, there was much discrimination against giving birth to girls. This assumption is proven as sex ratios in rural areas, illustrate this (Yang & Chen, 2004). Many families chose to abort their child, if they knew it was going to be a girl, in favour of giving birth to a boy the next time. “These patterns are consistent with the expected impact of population control policies implemented in China” as described by Yang and Chen (2004), pp.289. Similarly, the results of a study carried out by Bulte et al (2010) show that if the parents know the child will be a girl, the probability of choosing to neglect or abort the child greatly increases. Additionally, as the ethnic minority groups were exempt from the policy and the Han (main ethnic group) was not, this allowed for a national experiment. Thus, this policy gives us the explanation for the gender gap and the 15-20 million ‘missing’ Chinese females (Bulte et al, 2010). This literature also provides rules that could be introduced to decrease the gender gap in China; “relaxing of strict fertility regulations, enforcement of sex selective abortion regulations or wait for economic forces to endogenously alter household preferences.” (Bulte et al, 2010, pp. 17) In economic terms, as the supply of women start to decrease, e.g. women become scarcer, and their demand increases, they will become more valuable due to excess demand.

Sen (1998) argued that “the level of mortality at different ages is an important indicator of human development.” (Banister & Zhang, 2005, pp.37) Similarly, Far, Zhang & Zhang (2002) argue that mortality could be reduced if education increased, as it helped to increase the literacy rate, and thus their incomes (Banister & Zhang, 2005). Through higher incomes, people could support themselves, leading to healthier and therefore live longer. In general, the growth in average per capita income, which is an indicator of the economic development of China, has led to the decrease in the mortality rate (Banister & Zhang, 2005).

A paper by Yu (2008), evaluates the impact of the one-child policy on the growth of China’s economy. After carrying out standard econometric estimation, the results “only show the ‘averaging effect’ and conceals the ‘takeoff effect’ and therefore underestimates the economic impact of demographic changes.” (Yu, 2008, pp.1) On the other hand, a study by Bloom and Williamson (1998) claims that “(i) population growth has a negative impact on economic growth, (ii) the growth of an economically active population has a positive impact on growth, and (iii) the dependency ratio (inverse of the ratio of working age to non-working age population) has a strong effect on economic growth.” (Yu, 2008, pp.3) Using these assumptions and without the introduction of the policy, the real GDP per capita would have been 13.2% lower in 1995 (Yu, 2008). The third result on dependency ratio is reiterated in a study by Tyers and Golley (2010) who explain that changes in demographics affect a country’s economic growth through changes in the work force, and age and sex of the population because it changes the amount that each household saves or consumes (Tyers & Golley, 2010). Alternatively, Pitchford (1974) states that the faster the population grows, GDP growth will increase, but per capita income will grow slower as the decrease in marginal labour and capital productivity should be taken into account (Tyers & Golley, 2010). These views of economic growth all differ, but with the similarity that large population growth will decrease economic growth. One large problem with the introduction of the policy is that although the benefits can be seen throughout time, China’s labour force will start to decline within the next 10 years or so. With China’s changing age demographic, the population of the elderly, relative to the younger will begin to increase. However, the percentage will still be below 10% of the population (Feng, 2005).

Environmental effects (pros and cons)

Greenhalgh (2003) expresses her opinion that the environment in China, previous to the implementation of the population policies was said to be deteriorating because of the large, rapidly growing population (Greenhalgh, 2003). Similarly, Jian & Jingyuan (1985) discussed that by leaving the population to grow at its current rate would have largely damaged the environment and led to natural resource depletion (Feng, 2005). Therefore, through the introduction of the population policy, fertility in China largely declined, thus, reducing the strain of the vast population on the environment (Kane & Choi, 1999).

Future thoughts

Ever since the late 1950’s, China’s has tried to implement various policies to try and reduce the high population growth, but the one-child policy was seen to have had the greatest impact in controlling the growth of the population and the high fertility rate (Yu, 2008). However, it is hard to certify the true extent to how far population growth has declined, due to the so called ‘floating population’ (Retherford et al, 2005). Zhang (2003) explains how there has been mass migration from rural to urban areas and because the residents do not migrate with government approval, they are officially still registered in their original place of residence. Therefore, the so called ‘floating population’ makes it easier for people not to report births, making it harder for the government to calculate the population (Retherford et al, 2005). Recently, where China has experienced large globalisation and individuals are becoming increasingly wealthy, makes it harder to implement the policy as many people are able to afford the fines and increased freedom makes it harder for the government to keep a close watch on the population (Hesketh et al, 2005).

A disadvantage of the one-child policy is the result of an aging population and labour force, that has been caused by the drop in the TFR. Thus, it has been proposed that “between 2015-2020, growth of the working age population will become negative and GDP growth will suffer as a consequence.” (United Nation, 2005 as stated in Tyers & Golley, 2010, pp.594) Therefore, there will be a further decline in birth rates, but due to the aging population, death rates will also increase (Yu, 2008). A paper by Tyers and Golley (2010) argues that due to the aging population, China’s labour abundance will decrease, conversely to other developing Asian countries, which will experience an increase in relative capital returns (Tyers & Golley, 2010). This study shows that with an alternative two-child policy, the growth rate of real per capita income would decrease; however, it would cause an increase for future GDP growth (Tyers & Golley, 2010). Yu (2005), argues that China should relax their population control policies, for example, with the introduction of a two-child policy (Yu, 2008). The paper explains that China’s ‘demographic gift’ has peaked, and that with the future population being much older, a different policy should be found. Similarly, Bongaarts and Greenhalgh (1985), argue the two-child policy, with fixed spaces between children would help to increase fertility rates to a higher level, to encourage the growth of the economy. On the contrary, Bluett (2004) believes that to decrease population growth, China’s aims should be “developing the economy, getting rid of poverty, protecting the environment, developing and utilising resources and popularising education”, because in addition to the policy, growth cannot be entirely successful unless the externalities it produces are eliminated (Bluett, 2004, pp.8).

Word Count: 1996

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