China's coming one-child crisis

The question that should be keeping Communist Party leaders awake at night is: Can Chinese fertility levels recover if and when the controls are abandoned? Alas, the answer to that existential question is not at all clear.

Demographers at the United Nations Population Division (UNPD) and the U.S. Census Bureau calculate that Chinese fertility levels today are far below the level necessary for population replacement. By their reckonings, current childbearing patterns, if continued, would mean each successive generation would shrink by 25% (UNPD) or 27% (Census Bureau). Official Chinese estimates, and the work of some independent Chinese demographers, suggest an even steeper drop.

These fertility estimates are nationwide averages. In China’s cities, birthrates are far lower. In Beijing and Shanghai, for instance, official estimates suggest that women are having far fewer than one birth per lifetime (around 0.7 on average). In such settings, scrapping the One Child Policy will make no demographic difference whatsoever: People aren’t even using their given birth-quota permits now.

Yet even in rural areas the desire for children may now be more attenuated than is commonly supposed. A major study conducted in 2007-10 by Chinese and American demographers found that the eastern province of Jiangsu only a third of rural families would favor having a second child.