China’s population is set to decline, and the authorities have become seriously worried about the consequences. But while an authoritarian society can force people to have fewer children, it may not be able to push them to have more.
That is the background to the decision this week by China’s leadership to allow couples to have up to three children. The one-child policy, introduced in the face of what seemed at the time to be an overly rapid increase in the Chinese population, may well have cut the birth rate – though in fact it was already falling swiftly from an average of more than six children per mother in the 1960s to fewer than three by the late 1970s. (Replacement rate is normally calculated as an average of 2.1 babies per woman.) But the easing of that policy to two children in 2015 does not seem to have increased family size. According to the World Bank, China’s fertility rate has been running at between 1.6 and 1.7 babies per mother since the mid-1990s.
So China has had a generation wherein births were below replacement rate. That would, without net inward migration, inevitably cut the size of the population, and this is projected to happen within the next few years. Actually, there is a further reason for the population to decline, which is the shortfall in the number of girls being born. According to the Scientific American, there are 119 boy babies for every 100 girls born in China today.
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