China's One Child Policy Was 'The Stupidest Thing A Country Ever Could Have Done'

Dr. Dudley Poston, demographer and professor of sociology at Texas A&M University, discusses China’s one-child policy and its global implications. (56 min., 19 sec.)

A sociologist who has worked closely with senior Chinese government demographers says that China's recent shift from a "One Child Policy" to allowing two children per family will do little to alleviate fallout from the long-standing birth limits. 

"No, there will not be a baby boom, and yes, there will be an economic bust," said Dudley Poston, a Texas A&M University demographer and sociologist who has researched China's population issues for 35 years.

Poston, who was speaking at Asia Society in Houston last month, noted that, starting in 1971, the Chinese government had pushed the wan-xi-shao (later, longer, fewer) campaign, which exhorted later marriage, longer intervals between children, and fewer children. The fertility rate subsequently dropped from its 1960s peak of more than seven children per woman to less than three in 1979. When the strict "One Child Policy" was then fully implemented in 1980, it pushed the fertility rate down even further, leaving it at around 1.3 to 1.4 children per woman today, according to Poston's estimates. This timeframe was much tighter than in the United States, he added, which saw its fertility rate peak at seven children per woman around 1800 before very gradually falling to 1.9 today. "[China] did it extremely rapidly," Poston said. "It was among the most successful fertility reductions, but its success and speed has raised all sorts of issues."

One of these issues is a population bottleneck. Because China is aging so rapidly, its workforce shrinks by millions every year and the productivity dividend the country once enjoyed from its large young population is fast disappearing. "I tell my undergraduate students, take off your shirt or coat and look in the back and you'll see 'Made in China,'" Poston said. "If you do that in 20 years, it'll say made someplace else. China will no longer be the world's manufacturer."  

Poston also cited the growing gender imbalance, which stems from a traditional preference for sons and sex-selective abortion exacerbated by the birth limits. At its 2008 peak, 120 boys were born for every 100 girls in China, according to government statistics. In the past 20 years, Poston noted, nearly 50 million Chinese boys have been born for whom there will not be Chinese women to marry when they grow older. Among other serious side-effects, Poston's research has found that the resulting increase in prostitution, coupled with a massive "floating population" of migrant workers, could take HIV/AIDS from a concentrated outbreak to a generalized one. "[We] have estimated that China faces the possibility of an HIV/AIDS epidemic that could rival the situation in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has 8 percent of the world's population and 70 percent of HIV cases," he said.

Last year, in attempt to reverse these trends, China announced it would further relax its family planning policy to allow two children for all families. Poston noted that local pilots and surveys have already shown that this will not result in the desired baby boom, since women are more preoccupied by education and careers and increasingly put off by the high costs of raising a child. "Officials initially predicted as many as 10 million extra babies," Poston said. "It seems the increase will not exceed one million."  

"This was the stupidest thing that a country ever could have done," Poston added of the "One Child Policy," saying that the wan-xi-shao campaign and socioeconomic development were already bringing down the birthrate. "The Chinese demographers agree that it was a very very stupid thing to do. You didn't have to do it."

Watch Poston's complete talk in the above video

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.