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‘Two-child’ policy key to population growth

By Guo Zhigang | 2015-11-17 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Two kids, double happiness


Poem by Long Yuan; Cartoon by Gou Ben


An only child is a lonely child.
Two is better,
When they are young, 
They can play together.
And offer shelter,
In life’s stormy weather.
As China’s development turns a page,
The population starts to age.
The one-child policy is coming to an end,
And the four-member family will be the new trend.
The concept of family needs transformation,
For the benefit of the people and nation. 


The “one-child” policy is a population-control measure that has been in place in China for the past three decades, but now the nation’s population is aging, so the policy has outlived its usefulness. In 2014, China began to implement the restricted “two-child” policy, which allowed couples to have a second child if either parent was from an only-child family. However, the baby boom that the policy was intended to foster failed to materialize due to the dual impact of established norms of childbearing and social progress. To counteract the challenges posed by population aging and optimize the demographic structure, China’s 13th Five-Year Plan proposed to introduce an unrestricted “two-child” policy that allows all Chinese couples to have two children. The decision was made at the fifth plenary session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on Oct. 29.


The sixth census, conducted in 2010, showed China’s birth rate had reached a record low. The proportion of elderly citizens to the total population far exceeded expectations while the youth population fell far below established targets. It is evident that the phenomena of declining birth rates and an aging population are emerging at an alarming pace. According to retrospective estimations derived from census data, the domestic birth rate has remained below 1.5 percent since 1995, which is markedly lower than the official line of 1.8 percent.

In November 2013, the central government approved a policy that allowed couples to have two kids if either of them was from a single-child family. Understood as a preliminary attempt to ease population control measures, the restrained “two-child” policy signified the beginning of demographic transformation. The public response was overwhelmingly positive.

Though it represented a major breakthrough, the policy was only a small part of the entire roadmap for  demographic transformation. The ultimate goal was to abolish the “one-child” policy and implement an unrestricted “two-child” policy. From a demographic point of view, the population size of society can only be sustained if the average birth rate reaches 2 percent. Obviously, the new policy will go a long way toward addressing the problems brought by population aging.

Demographic crisis
On the basis of the 2010 census, the author explored the influence of birth rates on population aging by setting up different parameters. In the first step, the author constructed projections using three birth rates—1.94 percent, 1.77 percent and 1.60 percent— and assumed they would remain stable over time.
Based on these assumptions, he calculated that the population aged 60 years or older would reach 33.5 percent, 36.0 percent or 38.5 percent, respectively, by 2054. In the worst-case scenario, the proportion of the elderly population would be approximately 40 percent if the domestic birth rate were to remain below 1.5 percent.

What merits our attention is that China’s demographic crisis not only finds expression in the growth of the elderly population but also in the inevitable aging of the working-age and fertile female populations. True, the working-age population, defined as people between the ages of 15 to 59, amounted to an astounding 940 million in 2010. However, it will continue to dwindle over the next three decades, given that no one can stay at the prime of his or her life forever. Those who were born between 2000 and 2014 will be available for employment from 2015 to 2030. It is nearly certain that labor shortages will be problematic in the near future. By 2030, the working-age population is expected to shrink to 850 million. Given the extension of the education cycle, the number is likely to be even lower.

Similarly, the number of women who are of childbearing age is declining. It amounted to 380 million in 2010 but will drop to 300 million in 2030. The median age of this group was 33 in 2010. It will reach to 36 in 2030. Needless to say, the decline and aging of the fertile female population will have a negative impact on birth rate.

‘Two-child’ policies
The “two-child” policies, with or without restrictions, represent a seminal breakthrough with regard to China’s low birth rate and aging issues, but several problems still need to be addressed.

Given the severity of the aging problem, it is essential to adjust the population-control policy. It is expected that the new measures will put an end to and reverse the trend of the “baby bust.” Hopefully, the domestic birth rate will bounce back to the replacement level in the near future.

The new policies have five goals: to boost the domestic birth rate so that it approaches the replacement level, to reduce the number of one-child families, to offset the negative effects of family planning, to mitigate the crisis of population aging and low birth rate, and to steer population growth toward a healthy trajectory.

Restricted policy
The restricted “two-child” policy stemmed from the central government’s attempt to “improve the extant family planning system.” It is no more than a supplement to the hard-line “one-child” policy. One year later, the ramifications of the restrained “two-child” policy attracted widespread attention. According to the most up-to-date information released by the government, 11 million couples nationwide meet the criteria of the policy. By the end of 2014, a total of 107,000 couples decided to have a second child and applied for government permission. Such an outcome has multiple layers of meaning. Defying government expectations, Chinese parents are not that enthusiastic about having another child, and the birth rate may remain sluggish. Fertility desire, fertility behavior, family planning and childbirth are not the same thing. In other words, the filing of a million applications does not automatically translate into a million childbirths.

Ending restriction
It seems like almost a foregone conclusion that ending restrictions on the “two-child” policy will usher in a short-term baby boom. However, we need to break free from outdated frameworks of thinking and approach the impending phenomena through a new analytical lens. The anticipated birth rate rebound is a logical outcome of the shift in policy. It is expected to mitigate China’s demographic plight at both the macro and the micro levels and give rise to a healthy, balanced demographic structure. Therefore, it is inadvisable to label the forthcoming birth rate rebound as a “price to pay” for the implementation of the new policy or even interpret it as a collapse of the population-control mechanism.

The implementation of any “two-child” policy should be gradual. It should be carried out in designated areas first and then extended to the rest of the country.


A gradual approach is likely to prevent an explosive baby boom, but it cannot eradicate such possibility. Statistically, it may cause the birth rate to grow steadily on a national scale. On the regional level, however, a baby boom may still happen. Moreover, the central government may find itself in a dilemma while trying to arrange an order with regard to the implementation of the “two-child” policy for each region to follow. For example, it would be unfair to parents of the less-developed western provinces if priority were given to large cities on the eastern coast, such as Shanghai, where birth rate is the lowest and the amount of single-child families is the highest nationwide.

The new policy is, in essence, a remedy for the strikingly stringent family planning measures of the past. It is aimed at mitigating potential crises caused by low birth rates and achieving a healthy, balanced trajectory for population growth in accordance with the general laws of demography. In particular, the unrestricted “two-child” policy should be firmly based upon a positive outlook and a practical spirit. To facilitate the policy shift, it is necessary to respect the opinions and rights of the general public. We must listen to the voices of ordinary people as well as officials at all levels to work out a more rational and feasible implementation plan.


Guo Zhigang is a professor of sociology at Peking University.