Will the end of China’s one-child policy shift its boy-girl ratio?
The Chinese government on Friday said it would relax its decades-old one-child policy, which has led to one of the most skewed sex ratios at birth in the world. Boys naturally outnumber girls at birth (by about 107 to 100 globally), but in China there are about 118 boys born for every 100 girls born today.
Sex-selective abortion is likely a big factor explaining the high share of baby boys born. The high sex ratio may also relate to reporting practices — it may be the case that parents don’t report the births of some baby girls to the government, in the hopes that they can “try again” and have a boy.
While son preference remains a strong cultural norm in China, it will be interesting to see if the loosening of the one-child policy will lead to an increasing share of baby girls in the country.
How will the move towards a two-child policy affect overall fertility in China? While it’s difficult to know for sure, it’s worth looking back to see how the implementation of the one-child policy played out.
While fertility certainly declined since the advent of the one-child policy in 1980, University of Maryland demographer Philip Cohen makes a compelling case — in one chart — that the fertility decline in China was already well underway prior to the one-child policy’s official implementation.
He graphs China’s “total fertility rate,” from 1961 to 2012, which is an estimation of the number of children a woman will have in her lifetime. In the 1960s, China’s number rose to about 6. However, it declined precipitously thereafter, falling to about 2.6 —before the one-child policy was even implemented in 1980. The total fertility rate now stands at about 1.6, suggesting a woman will have about 1.6 children in their lifetime.
Fertility rates typically fall as countries become more urbanized and more economically developed. And, indeed, across Asia, even countries without a one-child policy have experienced a rapid decline in fertility rates in recent decades.
So while it’s reasonable to think a new two-child policy in China will increase fertility rates, the effects of the new policy could also be tempered by the country’s rapid economic development, urbanization and cultural change.
Gretchen Livingston is a senior researcher focusing on fertility and family demographics at Pew Research Center.