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What happens if China’s “one child” is left behind?

by Robert Engelman on March 3, 2008

Based on a senior official’s remarks, it looks like China may soon relax its one-child policy. That has raised fears among some demographers that the country will experience a massive baby boom once the reproductive shackles come off, and hence “could overturn predictions of an imminent end to global population growth,” in the words of New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin.

Almost one in five human beings is Chinese (1.3 billion out of a global total of 6.7 billion), so the country matters immensely to human numbers. But there’s an assumption embedded in this discussion that deserves to be challenged. How do we know it’s the one-child policy that actually explains China’s current low fertility? Could factors outside of the heavy-handed government framework of fines and sanctions continue to keep Chinese families small even if that framework becomes less heavy-handed?

After all, families are small (and getting smaller) in lots of countries where governments don’t dictate their size. And surveys indicate that three out of five Chinese under the age of 30 want no more than two children, with very few wanting more than three. The government estimates (and not all demographers trust this) that Chinese women now have an average of 1.8 children each over their lifetimes. That alone tells us the one-child policy is ineffective at driving births down to a national rate anywhere close to one child per woman.

Paradoxically, women in Taiwan and in the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macao actually have about one child on average, and the one-child policy has never been a factor for these populations. True, they’re not fully comparable to China’s population as a whole, but their hyper-low fertility does speak to the feasibility of achieving lower fertility based not on coercive policies but on the reproductive choices of couples and individuals and good access to family planning services.

Chinese fertility rates began falling long before the one-child policy went into effect in 1979. Women had an average of more than six children in the early 1950s, and that average had fallen by more than half by the late 1970s. It has continued to fall since the introduction of the one-child policy, but less rapidly than in those earlier decades and no more rapidly than fertility has fallen elsewhere in the world.

No one would argue that China’s one-child policy has no impact at all on the country’s population growth. But to attribute a demographic “savings” of 300 million “never-born” people to that policy, as some Chinese officials have done, is to ignore the many other reasons women have fewer children than their mothers or older sisters did. These reasons—which I explore in a book available next month, More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want—include women’s aspirations to educate themselves and find satisfying employment, not to mention decent access to effective contraception.

China’s hothouse economic growth and improving social welfare programs are also likely to continue to encourage smaller families. Just possibly, so does the keen awareness among its citizens that the country’s environmental challenges are closely related to its giant and still-growing population.

Chinese women and couples undoubtedly want the same high-quality health care and contraceptive options that women do elsewhere in the world. Whether an end to global population growth is imminent has much more to do with policies in all countries that help people reach those aspirations than with policies in any one country, no matter how populous, that dictate how many children a woman can have.

Robert Engelman is Vice President for Programs at the Worldwatch Institute and author of the book More: Population, Nature, and What Women Want, published by Island Press.


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