China’s Birthrate Could Keep Falling Even Without the One-Child Policy

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Nov. 21 2013 11:52 AM

Will China’s Birthrate Keep Falling Even Without the One-Child Policy? 

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A Chinese boy is filmed playing the ukulele for a video to promote his stage career, which is managed by his mother, at Ritan Park in Beijing on Nov. 10, 2013.

Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Foreign Policy’s Liz Carter notes the results of a recent Chinese Internet survey, which could give some perspective on potential impact of the government’s recent decision to further ease the one-child policy:

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

But according to a Nov. 18 survey of 5,000 web users conducted on Sina Weibo, a surprisingly large portion of Chinese think one is plenty: 52 percent of respondents said the "economic pressure" of a second child would be too much. Chinese wages are expected to rise 8.4 percent in 2013, yet many still feel constrained. "In China, when you get married you have to take care of both partners' parents," explained one Weibo user. "And don't forget the mortgage. Add another child to that and the pressure is enormous."
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In other words, the kind of educated middle-class young people taking surveys on Sina Weibo—China’s equivalent of Twitter—aren’t necessarily itching to have larger families. (This doesn’t in any way justify the basic inhumanity of the policy or how it is often enforced.)

It’s also interesting to note that on the CIA World Factbook’s ranking of “countries” by fertility rate, the bottom four spots are occupied by Singapore, Macau, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s fertility rate is 1.11, compared with 1.55 for mainland China.

All of these places are predominantly Chinese in ethnicity and culture. Two (or three, depending on your point of view) of them are actually part of China. None of them has the one-child policy—just the opposite in Singapore’s case.

It’s misleading to compare the demographics of small city-states with the world’s largest country for the same reasons Matt Yglesias recently explained in reference to D.C. These places also have density concerns that China doesn’t.

On the other hand, it’s generally been the case that when societies become more urbanized and affluent—both currently goals of the Chinese government—birthrates drop. Beijing and Shanghai are currently the Chinese regions with the lowest fertility rates.

So as China gets richer and more urban, and mainland cities start to look more like the autonomous ones, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see a big increase in births, no matter how many children people are legally allowed to have.

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