"An Urgent Call to Immediately Scrap the One Child Policy"

This open letter was published on August 18, 2012, but recently recieved attention again online due to a statement by Wang Xia, the official in charge of China's policies on reproduction, that the One Child Policy would not be scrapped anytime soon. In this translation, I've used "One Child Policy" interchangeably with all versions of China's policy on reproduction, although a small minority of people are allowed to have more than one child under certain conditions. The original Chinese of the letter can be found here; my article on reactions to this letter and Wang Xia's statement is on Tea Leaf Nation.


An Urgent Call to Immediately Scrap the One Child Policy

To China’s 18th Central Politburo Standing Committee:

China’s population growth has slowed dramatically over the past ten to twenty years. The 2010 census revealed that the overall birth rate for women (the average number of children each woman has) has dropped to 1.18 from 4.5 in 1973, making China’s birthrate one of the lowest in the world. China needs to increase its birthrate now; the strict One Child Policy is already out of date. There are also cadres at the most local levels who will infringe upon others’ human rights without compunction, creating conflict between officials and the people, leading to an increase in public anger and creating international issues, greatly harming the international reputation of China. There is no way we can continue to maintain this policy, which is nothing but wrong after wrong after wrong.

When the One Child Policy was first introduced, China was one of the poorest countries in the world, with an average annual salary of less than $300 USD. Agriculture accounted for 30% of the economy, and almost all products were in short supply. At the same time, the birth rate was very high, and the population was increasing rapidly. China’s economy was faced with such problem as difficulty in providing enough employment, low average food production, and insufficient investment in education. These were the conditions that gave birth to the One Child Policy. It required that it be strictly enforced in cities, and enforced somewhat less strictly in the countryside. For this, the Chinese people made a great sacrifice. Many families were unable to realize their wish of having both sons and daughters. The terrible violence of local officials, destruction of houses, confiscation of livestock, and forced abortions also became common occurrences.

China’s economic condition is much different today. In terms of size; it is second only to the US, and per capita annual income is more than $5,000 USD. 200-300 million rural residents have found work in urban areas. The people have also developed an increased awareness and understanding of human rights. After maintaining an outdated policy restricting reproduction for so long, it has gradually lost its place in the changing environment, and its negative consequences have become more and more obvious. Especially apparent is that the percentage of the population made up by young people has rapidly dropped. Although the population has increased by 40% since 1976, the number of primary school students has decreased by 33%, from 150 million to 100 million. Primary schools have been merged all over the country. There were half as many primary schools in 2010 as there were in 2000. Due to the fact that the birth rate and number of children has continued to drop, there have been fewer and fewer secondary school students as well. Universities are facing a lack of students too, and schools are competing for students. China’s present condition – one of an extremely low birth rate and lack of children – is one of the few of its kind in the world. The rate that China’s population is aging is faster than any other country has ever seen.

The increase in population has dropped from 18 million per year in 1978 to 6 million now. If we continue the One Child Policy, the population will peak in 2017 at about 1.35 billion, and after that it will begin to shrink. Even if we scrap the One Child Policy immediately, after about ten years, China’s population will begin to shrink. At that point, China will have about 1.4 billion people. Previous predictions that the population would reach 1.5 or 1.6 billion it the policy were not in place are far from the truth.


The main changes in China’s population over the past ten years:

In 2003, the number of people aged 20-39 and in their prime working years began to shrink. This has already become apparent in the increasingly serious problem of labor shortages.

In 2010, children under the age of 14 made up only 16.6% of the population. Even if everyone could live to be 70, and the birthrate would remain stable, children 14 and under would make up only 20% of the population. At present, they make up only 16.6%, lower than the global average of 27%, and much lower than the average among developing nations of 29%. China is facing a serious lack of children.

The overall birthrate among women was 4.5 in 1973, 2.8 in 1979, 2.3 in 1990, 1.5 in 1995, 1.22 in 2000, and 1.18 in 2010. This dramatic drop in the birthrate is mainly due to economic and societal development, although the One Child Policy does play a role. Therefore, the immediate scrapping of the One Child Policy could not possibly result in a dramatic increase in the birthrate. That’s why they say that development is the best form of birth control.

According to the demographic breakdown of China’s population, the following events must occur in the next 20 years. These events are inevitabilities, just like ten-year-olds today will definitely be twenty years old in ten years. No matter how we adjust the Policy, we will not be able to change or avert the following events:

The number of children of childbearing age reached a point of negative growth in 2012. This means that China’s reproductive ability is currently going in decline.

In 2012 the ratio the non-working population to the 15-64 year old working population increased. The percentage of children below the age of 15 shrunk, but the percentage of people over the age of 65 grew rapidly. After taking into account both of these changes, the ratio of non-working to working has begun to increase. By 2015, 15-64 year old working-age people will hit negative growth, and after that, we will face the issues of long-term labor shortages and insufficient consumption by young people.

In 2015, the “bachelor crisis” will start to become apparent, and after that, the crisis will become more serious by the year. By 2023, there will be more than 20 million bachelors, and the number will eventually hit 40 million. These 30 or 40 million bachelors will forever lose the possibility of forming a family during the years they could have had children.

From 1975 to 2010, more than 220 million only children were born. About 4% of all children die before age 25. Even if some of these families successfully have another child, there will still be several million families that suffer the pain of losing their only child.


If we do not change the present One Child Policy, the following events will occur:

If we continue to maintain a birthrate of 1.18, China’s population will stop growing by 2017 at about 1.35 billion.

Thereafter, the population will continue to shrink rapidly. By the end of this century, China’s population will shrink by two thirds, leaving only 460 million people, and after another hundred years, in 220, there will be only 68 million people left. This nightmarish possibility is a clear reason China’s One Child Policy is not sustainable.

If we scrap the currently enforced One Child Policy, will the birthrate bounce back up dramatically? The vast majority of population experts predict that it would not. This is because the current low birthrate is not entirely due to the One Child Policy. What we must fear is that even if we stopped controlling the population with this policy, the birthrate may not reach a high enough figure to keep the population balanced. What China actually needs is to encourage people to have children, at an appropriate rate, in order to reach an appropriate rate of birth, and not to continue to limit reproduction.


We should change how we think about the relationship between population and the economy:

One of the main reasons China controls the population is that it is believed that the average amount of resources per person will determine whether economic development is hard or easy. A large population would increase the burden for society as a whole. Therefore, those who have more children than allowed by law are forced to pay fines for societal benefits. This kind of thinking overestimates how much resources can restrict economic development, and overlooks the fact that a large population results in a more efficient division of labor, more innovation, the gathering of industry in one place and other benefits. Furthermore, the idea that “A large population leads to poverty” is completely unsupported by the facts. There are rich countries with bountiful resources like the US, Australia, Canada, and there are rich countries and regions with extremely limited resources, like Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. In truth, after industrialization, not a single country in the world was unable to develop due to a lack of resources. East Asian countries, with comparatively limited resources, were able to develop very well, and countries in Latin America, with bountiful resources, did not develop as well. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, many countries experienced rapid population growth, and the percentage of people in the world who were Chinese did not increase markedly. It’s just that China did not grow like the four “Little Dragons” and Japan due to in the implementation of incorrect economic policies, so its economy did not grow along with its population.

It’s evident that wealth and average per capita resources are unrelated: wealth is related only to a country’s development model. In the short term, the size of a population does not necessarily have a positive or negative impact on its economic development. Looking back in history, population and the level of economic development are positively correlated. However, a skewing of a population’s demographic makeup will certainly have a negative impact on long-term economic development. The latest research in economics shows that after a country’s working population ages, the ability of the country’s youth to innovate and start new businesses drops dramatically, and the entire country’s competitiveness in science and technology weakens. In the past 20 years, the changes in Japan’s economy have proven that an aging population and lack of youth have an impact on innovation; their competitiveness in technological innovation has dropped markedly.

China’s rapid economic growth over the past 20 years is related to the makeup of its population and changes thereof. The country’s earlier, more youthful population provided a great labor force for economic development, and at the same time the number of children it produced decreased dramatically, so the burden for families was much lower.  Savings rates soared to unprecedented heights, making China number one or two in the world. This created the conditions for China’s high investment and high growth. However, despite conditions that were beneficial in the short term, in truth it was the population borrowing against itself, only to be forced to pay back the benefits in the future. This is because the dropping of the birthrate created a later labor shortage, and the serious burden of caring for the elderly in the future. Society will have to pay this price – that’s just what it means to pay your debts. In the process of paying this back, savings rates will be low, which will cause a number of problems, like a lack of investment in infrastructure, no money for environmental protection, and insufficient funds for scientific research. The result of this is that society’s economic development will slow, and even become more poor, decreasing the sustainability of the country’s per capita income.

Societies with a high proportion of elderly people, compared to societies with a high proportion of working people, are not as beneficial, but due to economic development and medical advancements, the aging of the population is a global development trend. Through the adjustment of technology, groups, and policies, and especially through the increase in societies’  wealth, the increase in education level, and the increase in societies’ adaptability, human societies are able to handle these kinds of changes. However, overly rapid aging of a population could lead to an aging without increasing wealth. Compared to other developed countries with aging populations, China’s population is aging before sufficient development has been achieved, and the problem of its aging compared to the country’s lagging societal development level is very obvious.

Besides economic problems, the One Child Policy has led to an extreme twisting of society’s structure and ethical framework. The One Child Policy has created a 4-2-1 family structure, with each family being comprised of 4 grandparents, 2 parents, and one child. Today’s young people must care for six middle-aged and elderly people, and each of these young people lacks brother and sisters, uncles and aunts. The entire society is lacking in horizontal blood relations, leaving only vertical, linear relations. This flat structure significantly weakens interpersonal relations. If one person becomes ill, or encounters other problems, besides his or her immediate family, there are no other people who would be able to help him or her. Even if friends can help, they would not help as naturally and closely as if they were blood relatives. Everyone’s position in their family line means that they must be responsible for the safety and security of their relatives, and that no one else is able to truly help. Excessive burden on children his highly unbeneficial to the safety and security of society.


What kind of reproductive policy should we choose?

According to calculations based on China’s present level of societal development, even if we did not have any restriction on reproduction, the birthrate would only be around 1.7. In countries with similar levels of economic development, like Iran and Thailand, the birthrate has naturally settled at around 1.8. China’s present state of economic development is similar to that of East Asian regions and countries like Taiwan and South Korea 20 years ago; at that time, they had a birthrate of around 1.7. Now, they are encouraging people to have more children, but the birthrate continues to be very low. Some people worry that the minute China relaxes its policy, rural young people will have 3 children. In actuality, most young people from China’s rural areas are working in the city, and they face the same pressures of caring for their parents and live the same kinds of lives as China’s urban youth. Much research shows that they would not want to have more than 2 children. Therefore, there is no need at all to worry that relaxing the policy would lead to an overly high birthrate. What we truly need to worry about is that once the restrictions are relaxed, the birthrate may still be far below necessary levels. In the global sphere, East Asian regions have the lowest birthrates, and areas where Chinese live, like Hong Kong and Taiwan, are even lower.

Will letting everyone have two children instead of one be enough? Or would it be better to allow people to freely have as many children as they want without restriction? Ending restriction completely means the end of the reproductive management, so it would end this cost for society and individuals. Allowing people to have a second child (or restricting it) would still mean there would be some management costs. Also, restricting people to two children still leaves room for barbaric infringements upon human rights. It is clear that allowing people to choose how many children to have is the best course. For the good of society, China must increase its birthrate, for all the aforementioned reasons. Therefore, we advise the immediate scrapping of restricted reproduction, and advise giving China’s citizens the rights of freedom, self-determination, and responsibility for their own reproduction.

 This advice is controversial because it could lead to out-of-control reproduction and the rapid rise of the population. But in actuality, women in China’s large urban areas are having less than one child on average already. In Beijing and Shanghai, the average birthrate per woman is only 0.7, lower than the 1 required by the One Child Policy. This shows that the elimination of the policy will probably not lead to an excessively high birthrate.

Look at the reproductive policies of all the other countries in the world. In Japan, Singapore, and the region of Taiwan, where population density far exceeds that of China, their policy is to encourage people to have more children. Most European countries also have similar policies, and even so, they have not seen a population increase. Societies with excessively low birthrates face all kinds of crises. China also needs to encourage people to have more children, and there should be no doubt that China should eliminate the One Child Policy.

Scrapping the One Child Policy will mean that hundreds of thousands of officials must assume new positions, but this isn’t a bad thing. Ceasing to perform unnecessary, even harmful actions, will result in great savings. However, it is highly important that a plan should be implemented to allow them to assume new jobs as smoothly as possible, to ensure there are no obstacles to the removal of the policy.


Authors who put forward the letter:

James Liang (Peking University Guanghua School of Management Economics Department Research Professor, C-Trip CEO)

Mao Yushi (Honorary Chair of Unirule)

Mu Guangzong (Peking University Population Research Institute Professor)

Yi Fuxian (Researcher at the ChangCe Think Tank)


Signed (in order of response):

Xu Xiaonian (Professor of Economics and Finance at China Europe International Business School)

Chen Zhiwu  (Professor of Finance at Yale University School of Management)

Li-An Zhou (Peking University Guanghua School of Management Professor, Chair of the Economics Deparment)

Li Honglin (Tsinghua School of Management Professor)

Zhao Yaohui (Peking University Center for Economics Research Professor)

Hu Dayuan (Peking University Center for Economics Research Professor)

Li Jianxin (Peking University Institute of Sociology and Anthropology)

Chen Yuyu (Peking University Guanghua School of Management Assistant Professor)

Su Jian (Peking University Department of Economics Professor, Assistant Chair)

Yuan Gang (Peking University School of Management Professor)

Li Honggang (Beijing Normal University School of Management Professor)

Yuan Yang (China Economic Theory Innovation Award Vice Secretary)

Gu Haibing (Renmin University School of Economics Professor)

Liao Jinzhong (Hunan University School of Economics and Trade Professor)

Fan Jianyong (Fudan University School of Economics Professor)

Wang Susheng (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Economics Department Professor)

Leonard Kwok-Hon Cheng (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Economics Department Lecturing Professor, Chair of the Business School)

Li Weisen (Fudan University School of Economics Global Economics Department Professor)

Xue Zhaofeng (Peking University Law and Economics Research Center Co-director)

Zhu Tian (China Europe International Business School Economics Professor, Economics and Policy Department Chair)

Tang Fangfang (Peking University Economics, Finance, and Marketing Professor)

He Yafu  (Independent Expert in Population Studies)

Liu Guo’en (Peking University Guanghua School of Management Professor of Applied Economics)

Lin Wanjuan (Peking University Guanghua School of Management Professor of Applied Economics)

Yang Qijing (Renmin University School of Economics Professor of Economics)

Yong Cai (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Population Center Researcher)

Zhou Chunsheng (Zhejiang University School of Economics Professor of Economics)

Ma Lianghua (Zhejiang University School of Economics Professor of Finance)

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