China’s one-child policy, once called the Great Wall of family planning, was among the boldest strategies any nation has deployed in modern times to manage the size of its population. But after 35 years in force, experts say, the policy was having undesirable side effects: It upended traditional structures for supporting older adults and led to a widening imbalance in the number of men and women, one that could sow social unrest.

Many in China welcomed the announcement on Thursday that the policy would be changed to allow two children per couple. But experts said that, because having one child has become the social norm in China, the change will have only a limited impact, while the old policy’s legacy will be felt for decades to come.

Fertility Rate May Remain Low

Demographers agree that around the world, fertility rates generally fall as wealth and women’s educational levels rise. Hazel Denton, a former World Bank economist who teaches demography and development at Georgetown University, predicted that over the long run, this effect would have more impact in China than the policy change.

“Where women have a choice, and they have the opportunity to be educated and employed, they will choose a smaller family,” Dr. Denton said.

Many wealthy countries, in fact, are more worried about their populations shrinking than growing. Most have fertility rates below the level needed to maintain a stable population — about 2.1 births per woman — and some have tried to create incentives for families to have more babies.

Richard Jackson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted that China’s neighbors tend to have low fertility rates. In Hong Kong, the rate is about one child per woman, even though Beijing’s one-child policy never applied there.

Dr. Jackson said the rate in China was about 1.5 births per woman before the policy change, in part because many exceptions to the one-child rule were made. The rule was most strongly enforced in cities, he said, while families in the countryside whose first child was a daughter were often allowed to try a second time for a son. He predicted that China’s fertility rate would probably climb to only 1.8 children per woman.

A Lingering Gender Imbalance

In a society with a widespread preference for sons, the one-child policy led to a significantly skewed ratio of men to women: There are now about 120 boys born in China for every 100 girls, Dr. Jackson said. “China will be living with the pernicious legacy of this gender imbalance for decades to come,” he said. “It should have lifted the policy years ago.”

Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute noted that human populations will naturally give birth to slightly more male than female babies, but because boys are more likely to die than girls, the gender ratio tends to equalize by the time a generation reaches childbearing age.

Demographers say there is a social preference for male children across East Asia, though not to the extremes seen in China. It remains to be seen whether permission to have a second child will make China’s families look more like its neighbors’.

Caring for a Rapidly Aging Population

While China’s birthrate would probably have fallen as the country developed, the one-child policy brought it down very suddenly. Dr. Jackson, an author of a 2008 report on aging in China, said that brought the unexpected consequence of a dire shortage of younger relatives to care for a rapidly aging population.

The median age in China today is about 37, a year younger than the figure for the United States. By 2050, according to United Nations population projections, America’s median age will have climbed to 42 — but China’s will have shot up to 50.

“Chinese leaders have probably taken a look at this prospect and decided they need to slow it down,” Samuel Preston, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania, said.

Dr. Jackson noted that in China’s Confucian culture, it is the duty of a son to support and care for his aging parents — but as a practical matter, the burden generally falls on his wife.

“By not having daughters,” he said of the gender imbalance, “you end up not having daughters-in-law.”

William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, said: “Clearly, China is facing an aging population and increasing elderly dependency.”

As for dropping the one-child policy, he added, “It’s about time.”

Source: New York Times


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