(Photo Credit: U.S. Army, Flickr Commons) Chi-An, a young aspiring nurse and population control worker in China, was one of many required to enforce the stringent edict of the one-child policy.[1] For years, Chi-An harassed pregnant women to abort their unborn children, subjected them to involuntary sterilization, and furthered the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) agenda to limit the growth of the Chinese population.

A member of the CCP and a loyal Chinese citizen, Chi-An did not question the merits of the policy until she herself became a mother. After having her first child, Chi-An was forced to abort a second. After accompanying her husband to the United States, where he came to pursue a university education, she became pregnant again. But despite the fact that she was in America, the CCP attempted to convince her to have another abortion. She refused.  Chi-An was the first Chinese woman to be granted asylum in the United States for the persecution she faced due to the one-child policy.

Unfortunately, China’s recent transition from a one-child policy to a two-child policy will not remedy situations like that of Chi-An. The two-child policy neither dismantles the coercive population control apparatus, nor removes the Chinese government’s involvement in personal family decisions.

If the Chinese government sought to eliminate forced abortion and involuntary sterilization, or hoped to reduce human trafficking or undo the country’s gender ratio imbalance, it would have abandoned family planning policies altogether. Rather, the CCP’s true motivations are to remedy the immense economic and demographic challenges created by the one-child policy. Even with the policy change, however, any economic or demographic benefits will not be realized for decades – by which time the one-child policy will have already taken a significant toll on China’s economy and demography.

The history of population control in China provides one way of illustrating why the two child policy will not be the antidote to ongoing humanitarian challenges and is unlikely to resolve the severe economic and demographic challenges that lie ahead for China.

The two-child policy comes after decades of coercive family planning and attempts to control the Chinese people. Under Mao Zedong, Chinese couples were given food and money to encourage them to have more children. Unsurprisingly, the population boomed, causing widespread poverty and starvation. Party leaders attributed these consequences to the growing population, rather than to poor communist policies of agricultural collectivization. In response, China instituted the later, encouraging delayed marriages, longer birth intervals, and fewer children. This policy resulted in the largest decrease in Chinese fertility in recent history.

Convinced that fertility rates hadn’t decreased enough, the CCP instituted the one-child policy in 1979. With the aid of forced sterilization and forced abortions, this policy continued the steady and precipitous decline in Chinese fertility.

Experts, including Chinese academics, have long warned China of the long-term economic and demographic effects of population control. Because of these foreboding forecasts, the CCP modified its one-child policy in 2013, allowing couples to have a second child if both parents were only children. Rather than ushering in large increases in fertility, the modification merely led to an additional 1.5 million births — a meager increase given China’s 16 million births annually.

China’s history of population control and the failures of the one-child policy have created demographic problems that are immutable in the short to medium term. In 2012, China’s working age population shrank for the first time ever. In contrast, estimates indicate that China’s elderly population will increase 60 percent by 2020, as its working-age population decreases by nearly 35 percent.[2] As a direct result of the one-child policy, China’s annual projected GDP growth rate will likely decline from 7.2 percent in 2013 to around 6.1 percent by 2020.[3]

In a forthcoming paper, Heritage Foundation economist William T. Wilson estimates that China’s population would have had an additional 326 million people, had the one-child policy never been enacted. Wilson also found that China would not currently have such a severe dependency ratio, nor would it have the sex ratio imbalance of roughly 116 boys for every 100 girls that it does today.

China currently has a population made up of an estimated 33 million more men than women. This has led to a phenomenon known as “bare branches,” which refers to the notion that Chinese men are increasingly violent, restless, and unable to find wives. This phenomenon has contributed to the human trafficking of women as male-order brides from surrounding countries in Southeast Asia and North Korea.[4]

Today, some experts have touted the change to a two-child policy as a significant divergence from past practice. Chinese officials expect the rollback of the one-child policy to result in an additional 3 million births annually, increasing Chinese births from a little over 16 million to just below 20 million each year. In this regard, the two-child policy will add fewer additional births than the modification made to the policy in 2013. China also forecasts that the two-child policy will add an additional 30 million workers to the work force and increase the country’s GDP by half a percent, though these gains are by no means guaranteed.

However, in the context of China’s long history of population manipulation, the policy is merely part of a familiar pattern – government involvement in family matters. The two-child policy will not significantly alter negative economic trends, and it is worth exploring why.

Historical analyses of birth rates in areas where China already tacitly implemented a two-child policy found a disturbing trend: a significantly skewed sex ratio for second, third, and higher order births. Gender ratios were already skewed under the one-child policy. Census data drawn from 2010 shows that the nation-wide sex ratio for only children was 114 boys for every 100 girls. Recent studies based on China’s 1990 census suggest that manipulation of the gender of the second child and higher order births skewed the sex ratio to result in as many as 120 boys for every 100 girls born. The two-child policy has the potential to further skew gender ratios.  The negative cultural and societal impacts of China’s sex ratio imbalance are also likely to increase under the two-child policy, especially if sex selective abortion technologies remain in use.

The two-child policies piloted in Yicheng County and several other rural areas in China are useful test cases to examine the likely impacts of the two-child policy. In Yicheng, the two-child policy is no less draconian than the one-child policy. In fact, the two-child policy placed even more stringent requirements on the permissible marriage age and requirements for birth spacing than did the one-child policy. The architect of the two-child policy in Yicheng based it on the “later, longer, fewer” policy– a predecessor to the one-child policy.

While technically not compulsory, the “later, longer, fewer” policy advocated later marriages, longer birth intervals between children, and fewer children overall. Ironically, the one-child policy was implemented because the reduction in fertility under “later, longer, fewer” was deemed inadequate.

But, contrary to popular belief, “later, longer, fewer” reduced fertility rates more than the one-child policy, and studies in Yicheng indicate that the effects of the two-child policy are likely to parallel those of the “later, longer fewer” policy. Indeed, fertility rates in Yicheng under the two-child policy are lower than the Chinese average: 109 births for every 1,000 couples, as opposed to the national average of 112 per every 1,000 couples.

The results, in part, stem from Chinese preferences for fewer children, which experts contend is attributable to the inextricable link in Chinese propaganda between wealth and small family size. Chinese citizens have been told for years that having only one child is ideal. A change in government policy will not immediately transform the cultural consensus on family size. Additionally, those who desire additional children often consider it cost prohibitive under present economic conditions.

The Yicheng experience is informative. Although the Chinese government has not laid out the specifics of its plan to implement the two-child policy nationwide, it may well be modeled after Yicheng. Even more telling is that Liang Zhongtang, the architect of the two-child policy in Yicheng, abandoned his original two-child policy proposal and now believes that Chinese families should be able to make their own decisions about fertility.

China cannot reverse the demographic trends resulting from its previous one-child policy; indeed, this policy will no doubt shape the country’s demographics into the 2020s and 2030s. But the two-child policy is unlikely to significantly change the demographic trends beyond the next two decades. Accordingly, China should discontinue the human rights abuse that accompanies coercive population control.  The two-child policy is not only too little, too late, but it is also too much of the wrong thing. Ultimately, it is in the best interest of the Chinese government to help the Chinese people realize the liberties and joys typically associated with freedom in family matters.



[1] Steven Mosher, A Mother’s Ordeal

[2]Nicholas Eberstadt, “The Demographic Risks to China’s Long-term Economic Outlook.”

[3]Fang Cai and Yang Lu, “Population Change and Resulting Slowdown in Potential GDP Growth in China,” China and World Economy, Vol. 21, No 2, 2013, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1749-124X.2013.12012.x/pdf (accessed August 20, 2015).

[4] State Department Trafficking in Persons Report