As China grapples with the sad reality of a rapidly ageing work force even as its economy surges ahead, the time is also appropriate to analyse its one-child policy and the implications. The question that lingers is: has the implementation of such a restrictive policy yielded anything for China?
China’s 1.3 billion population is growing rapidly and is estimated to reach the highest between 2020 and 2030. Demographers feel that by 2050 25 percent of China’s population would be in the age bracket of 65 and the number of young would also thin drastically. This means that the massive labour force, which propelled China economy, is coming to an end. According to the UN, China’s pool of workers could shrink by a total of 61 million by 2030. China is also staring at the prospect of a huge drain of its accumulated wealth, which needs to be spent on healthcare and pension schemes. All these as a result of its regressive one-child policy.
In a bid to avoid population explosion and increase economic fortunes, China adopted the one-child policy in the 1980s which has been credited with prevention of 400 million births whilst the time the policy was in effect. Although China benefitted from the lowered fertility rate at that time, it faced a lot of flak for the harsh policy in which the family who crossed the permissible limit was punished with forced sterilization, abortions and hefty fines.
In reality what one-child policy achieved was a crisis in social spheres. Firstly, it created a huge gender disparity as couples preferred boy over girl. As a result, there are at present 117 men for every 100 women. Secondly, it created a selfish generation as a single child in a family is always pampered to the core.
After years of double digit growth, China’s economy entered the $10 trillion club in 2014 (US had achieved this in 2000). How much did the one-child policy help China in reaching the goal and was it worth at all? Madhurima Nundy, senior research staff at the Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS) says, “There is nothing that China has gained from the one-child policy. Many lives were thwarted through the illegal abortions. In some instances, couples faced a lot of problems to bring up the second child as they never got any state support and were also fined.”
Commenting on the ending of the one-child policy by China, economist Amartya Sen in the New York Times editorial said that China’s fertility rate (number of births a woman can give in her lifetime) “had been falling rapidly for a decade before the implementation of the policy (from an average of 5.87 births per woman in 1968 to 2.98 in 1978). Sen further said that from 2.98 births in 1978, the falling trend continued and after the draconian policy came into force, it stands at 1.67 in 2015. It is quite evident that the margin of the birth rate between 1978 and 2015 is not that huge despite the coercive reform policy.
Sen observes that there were other factors responsible for the fall in birth rates apart from the one-child policy. He points out two important reasons for the reduction in fertility rate: education and employment of women.
Women’s education and employment, which China has been practicing over the years, get lesser credit than the effectiveness of the one-child policy for its economic progress.
Supporting Sen’s view Nundy says, “Investing in the social sector, especially on women’s education, is the way forward. A state that does not respect its women population and forces its decision upon them is narrowing democratic spaces. Refusal to acknowledge that there are systemic, institutional and governance issues to be addressed rather than controlling family- size can also be catastrophic.”
Meanwhile, the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) unleashed a plethora of initiatives in China’s 13th five-year plan, including the new two-child policy to bridge the ageing crisis. China hopes that by letting couples have two children their labour force will increase by about 30 million by 2050. The Population Reference Bureau, a US think tank that create awareness about health and environment issues, calculated the demographic path under the new two-child policy, assuming that the fertility rate rises to two by 2050 (a rate of 2.1 children per couple is considered ideal to keep the population steady). It found out that even then the impact would be minimal. The peak population would only be 23 million greater – about two per cent—under the two-child policy. Meanwhile, the number of people in the age group of 65 would still be more. So, the million-dollar question is: will the two-child policy help China tide over the crisis precipitated by an ageing population?
Nundy says, “Going by the projection of demographers, even if the families restrict themselves to two children, a balance between younger and older population can only be attained by 2035. But this too will be of little or no significance. So, It would make sense to completely scrap the system of limiting family size and let families decide how many children they want.”
Slamming the policy of family control, Nundy says, “In urban cities, couples are, more or less, opting for a single child as the cost of living is high just like ours (India). In rural areas and cases of minorities, there was always a two-child policy, so the new initiative does not make any difference to them. The problem still remains as these shifts are incremental and do not mean much. At the end of the day, you still have a restrictive policy (only two children). Such policies have to be abandoned.”
As China goes all out to propel its economic growth taking along India as its trade and industrial partner, India would do well if it avoids the mistakes China committed.