Skip to main content

China's New Two-Child Policy Won't Lead to a Baby Boom

Too bad for China.
(Photo: freezing photo/Flickr)

(Photo: freezing photo/Flickr)

The Chinese Communist Party announced yesterday it will allow all married couples to have two children without being forced to pay fines and fees. The announcement marks the end of a 35-year-long run for China's one-child policy. Chinese officials are hoping the policy change builds up a bigger base of young people—but it may not make as much of a difference as they'd like.

Plenty of past research has tried to divine what would happen to the Middle Kingdom if officials eased the one-child policy. Studies have found that many, if not most, Chinese couples still won't choose to have a second child, even if they were permitted to do so. That may leave Beijing with the same old problems it's trying to avoid by allowing couples to produce a sibling: The aging of China's adults, without enough young, working people to support the senior citizens; and the larger numbers of young men in the population compared to young women, as a result of some families' preference for a son. Researchers fear that, in the future, the "extra" men won't be able to find anyone to marry, leading to social unrest.

China may soon find itself not in need of a population-restricting policy, but of laws that actually work to encourage population growth.

Several surveys back the idea that Chinese couples don't want more than one kid. In the Jiangsu province, the majority of surveyed couples told researchers they only wanted one child because it was too expensive to raise more. Other large surveys have found similar results.

The proof is in the pudding. In 2013, the Chinese government allowed couples in some provinces to have two kids, as a sort of trial run for nationwide change. Officials braced for tens of thousands of extra births—but only a fraction of those ever materialized, according to a report from population researchers Stuart Basten of the University of Oxford and Quanbao Jiang of Xi'an Jiaotong University.

In that same report, published in the journal Studies in Family Planning, researchers noted that, even if Chinese parents had an additional one million babies annually, "this increase will have only a minimal impact on the demographic problems cited as a reason for the changes." However, the researchers were operating under the assumption that no nationwide policy would follow the provincial ones. Perhaps they would revise their conclusions if they knew every (heterosexual, married) Chinese couple would be allowed to have two kids. Still, China may soon find itself not in need of a population-restricting policy, but of laws that actually work to encourage population growth, such as generous childcare or parental leave laws. Considering the meager success other countries have had trying to boost their birthrates, China may find that easier said than done.