November 20, 2015

Without one-child policy, China still might not see baby boom, gender balance

Legacy of One-Child Policy Is LikelyThe Chinese government recently announced it would further relax its decades-old one-child policy, but this shift might not dramatically affect the birth rate and the gender imbalance in China – at least not in the near term.

Why? Policy isn’t the only factor influencing a country’s demographic changes. China’s rapid economic development, its urbanization and its culture will continue to play a role in family size and the population’s gender makeup.

China’s fertility rate certainly declined since the advent of the one-child policy in 1980. But that decline seems to be a continuation of a trend that was already well underway prior to the policy’s official implementation. The country’s total fertility rate stood at almost six births per woman in the 1960s, but by 1980, it had already fallen below three births per woman. As of 2013, the typical Chinese woman was expected to have about 1.6 children in her lifetime.

Fertility rates typically fall as countries become more urbanized and more economically developed, and these factors likely explain much of the decline in the Chinese birthrate. Indeed, across Asia, even countries without a one-child policy have experienced a rapid decline in fertility rates in recent decades.

Sex Ratios at Birth, WorldwideChina’s one-child policy likely contributed to one of the most skewed sex ratios in the world. Today, there are about 116 boys born for every 100 girls born – a ratio much higher than the global one, 107 boys for every 100 girls.

In the decades before the one-child policy was first implemented in 1980, China’s boy-girl birth ratio looked similar to the global average. However, the ratio rose markedly in the years that followed.

Even though the policy may have contributed to the changing gender balance, it’s not clear that ending the one-child policy will immediately lead to an increasing share of girl babies, given the strong cultural preference for boys.

With the constraints of urbanization and economic development, many Chinese families may continue to have only one child. If that’s the case, the son preference may lead to the persistence of sex ratios favoring boys in the short term, though some experts say that, in the long run, China’s unbalanced sex ratio may even out.

Note: This is an update of a post originally published on Nov. 15, 2013. 

Topics: Gender, Birth Rate and Fertility, China

  1. Photo of Gretchen Livingston

    is a senior researcher focusing on fertility and family demographics at Pew Research Center.


  1. holly4 years ago

    the one-child policy was actually implemented in the early 70s when the fertility rate in China started dropping sharply.

    1. ethan4 years ago

      nope, 1958 was when the one child policy began.

  2. Jenefer Les4 years ago

    I read something which I would like to share. frankly speaking it confused me but over here it might help
    “Scientists have somehow missed definitions of gender in human beings,” states Dr. Makarand Fulzele. Insights gained from years of practice as surgeon makes him wonder if indeed we have overlooked facts staring in our face. Nature has a tendency to hide many secrets but at the same time it provides enough clues to unravel its mysteries. Dr. Fulzele picks up loose threads from life to stitch together the theory that man is an extension of woman in his new book, “Man Is the Extension of Woman: Know the Ultimate Truth about Yourself” (published by iUniverse). Dr. Fulzele’s book explores similarities between men and women against the backdrop of their genetic differences, physical variations, and emotional and intellectual dissimilarities. Dr. Fulzele who is a successful surgeon further explains in his book: The main hypothesis I discuss in this book is that, if a woman lives long enough she will be converted into a man physically. A similar thing can also be stated about man. It is wrong to categorize humankind into two genders as it implicates that they are extremely dissimilar and physically opposite to each other. I try to prove that man and woman are just two different stages of one developmental process. And physically they are very similar. The ideas presented may sound unconventional but Dr. Fulzele implores readers to consider his point of view with an open mind. “Your world will not change if you do not agree with me. But if you agree with me, how does it change your world? If more people agree with you and me, how does it change our world? The possibilities are limitless.”

  3. Andy4 years ago

    The author carelessly relies on World Bank data, which is incorrect.

    Vietnam has sex ratio >110, yet its missing from the chart. Korean sex ratios have long normalized to below 107, yet it is included erroneously in the list. And where is India, Taiwan?

    The author could have drawn the simple line herself on the fertility rate chart, but relies on Philip Cohen who doesn’t deserve any credit for something so obvious and well known.

  4. Ahmed Ali4 years ago

    How ironic is the fact that people prefer more children when they are underdeveloped, and less number of children when they are more developed and urbanized.