World First Look

China birthrate gets a bump as one-child policy eases up

Birthrates in China rose to their highest level since 2000 last year, but some China watchers wonder if it will be enough to help an economy losing 5 million people from its labor force every year.

Chinese children play with bubbles at a residential compound in Beijing.
Andy Wong/AP/File
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In October 2015, the Chinese government finally eliminated China's "one-child" policy, in place since 1979.

Starting in 2016, parents have been allowed to have two children per couple, leading to a boom in childbirth over the past year. Approximately 17.86 million children were born in 2016, a 1.31 million increase from 2015, according to China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission. But while the numbers are certainly rising, they might not be rising fast enough to correct problems created by the infamous 1979 mandate.

China's one-child policy created a significant age and gender imbalance in the country's population, which will remain a problem for years, say some China watchers, despite the two-child replacement. But while allowing two children will likely help to restore a more equitable and gender-balanced population to the country over time, many Chinese parents, facing economic uncertainties and rising real estate costs, are choosing to stick with only one child.

At the end of 2015, China was home to 1.37 billion people, and remains the most populous country in the world. But most of the population is getting old, and the number of people of working age in the country has been spiraling. In 2014, 3.71 million fell out of the working-age population (16 to 59 years old) in China, compared to 2.44 million in the previous year.

But perhaps even more significant is the gender imbalance that pervades China. Largely because of the one-child policy, there are far more men in the country than women. Within the next five years, 20 to 30 million young men will be unable to find wives because of this imbalance, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in October 2015:

The traditional Chinese preference for sons was kicked into overdrive by the Party's one-child policy, which is credited with preventing up to 400 million births. In light of the crises China already faces from its 1.35 billion population, such as pollution, it's easy to see the logic of controlling family size, notwithstanding ethical issues. 

But those achievements came at the cost of what some call "gendercide," in which parents often abort female fetuses in hopes of holding out for a son, and partly explains why there is one abortion in China for every 100 people, five times the US rate. 

Chinese officials say they hope that the new policy will help correct this imbalance and lead to a larger working population to support its aging population generations.

"While the total number of women of childbearing age fell by 5 million [in 2016], the number of births increased significantly, showing that the family planning policy adjustments were extremely timely and extremely effective," Yang Wenzhuang, of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, told Reuters.

Despite the optimistic outlook, however, the increase of 1.31 million babies has fallen short of previous government estimates. According to The Guardian, the initial expectation was to add 3 million babies every year for the next five years.

But while the two-child policy may come too late to solve many of the problems caused by the one-child policy, international humanitarian groups have almost universally hailed the end of the one-child policy as a major step forward for reproductive and human rights in China. Couples who violated the old policy were subjected to heavy fines and even forced sterilizations and abortions on a local level, though the Chinese government did not officially sanction such practices.

As a result of the one-child policy, every couple in China had an average of only 1.18 children per couple before the two-child policy went into effect. By comparison, the global average is 2.5 children per couple, while the average for developed countries is 1.7.

This article contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.