The future of China's one-child policy

Fang Jin Xue (L) leaves school with her mother.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: our Shanghai correspondent Scott Tong has been explaining the economics of China's one-child policy the law that limits Chinese parents to just one child. He's told us how and why the law came to be, what life is like for an only child in China and what it means for China's labor force and global prices. Today, the future of the one-child policy.

We've got Scott on the line from Shanghai to do that with us. Hello Scott.

Scott Tong: Hi Kai.

Ryssdal: So based on what we have heard from you in the past four days, one-child policy sort of does seem to have actually done what Beijing wanted it to do 30 years ago, right?

Tong: Well, what Beijing claims is that the policy has prevented 400 million births. More independent voices will tell you that the fertility rate might've gone down anyway for entirely different reasons. In 1980, when the policy came, every woman had about three babies. Now it's down to about 1.5. The original document reflected the idea that China had too many mouths to feed, and they wanted to control the population so they could have more to go around.

Now, here's the downside of what the policy has created. It has created this upside down ratio of old people to young people. Right now, about 15 percent of the population is over 65, but that's gonna double by 2050. Which is relatively OK for an advanced economy like the United States. But China, the fear is it's going to get old before it gets rich.

Ryssdal: Any sense then that the one-child policy might change at all?

Tong: Well, it actually has changed a little bit over the past 30 years. There are a bunch of exemptions to the policy -- ethnic minorities, some people in the countryside are allowed to have two children. It's pretty complicated. There are hints that more incremental loosening could be on the way. The argument for change goes something like this: The one-child policy came back in the day when China didn't have enough grain or capital or consumer goods.

Wang Fung is a Chinese-born demographer at the University of California, Irvine. And he says that is so 30 years ago.

Wang Fung: There's no shortage of capital in China anymore. There is no shortage of consumer goods anymore. So, the economy has changed, demography has changed. However, the policy has not changed.

Tong: Now, for its part, the government says the policy is going to stay in place for several more years.

Ryssdal: Even if it did change, though Scott, it's not like things would change tomorrow, right? It would take a while to turn this economy around.

Tong: It would take a while, if it turns things around. A lot of people I talked to in China don't want to have a second child; they say they can't afford it. And if you don't have enough young producers, that's an economic headwind that China is likely to have to deal with.

Ryssdal: Well, let me pick up on that for a minute, because you've been talking this week in your pieces about economic costs and benefits. But it sounds like the biggest problem to come in the future are future social.

Tong: Let me tell you a story: I was sitting on a raft, floating down a river, middle of nowhere China, a few months back. And the man who was pushing the raft, kind of the bamboo raft man, was showing me some of the houses in the countryside. And a few of them had a second floor, even a third floor. Then he said, "You know what? Those are the rich families. They're trying to show their wealth, so there sons could attract wives."

In those areas, families have savings rates that are going up. The bride price in those areas, the dowry, is going up. And that is because we have this imbalance between boys and girls. Right now, for every 100 baby girls born, 120 baby boys are born. Historically, many Americans know that Chinese families tend to favor boys. So in a decade, we're going to have tens of millions of men here who cannot find wives. So for all the people who think China is this economic colossus that has everything figured out, the one-child policy has created a lot of internal issues that China's going to have to deal with.

Ryssdal: Scott Tong in Shanghai for us, wrapping up a week's worth of coverage on China's one-child policy. He will be leaving China, Scott will, at the end of next month, coming back home, working in our Washington bureau for us. Scott, thanks a lot.

Tong: You're welcome.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...