Isabelle Attané

comments on China’s move to end its one-child policy

China has just announced the end of its one-child policy. INED demographer and Sinologist Isabelle Attané reviews what motivated that policy and what its impact has been. Attané’s research centres on social transformations in China as they relate to demographic change. She is particularly interested in gender relations: discrimination against girls and women in this changing society, and the effects of the skewed sex ratio (demographic masculinization). 


(interview done in November 2015)


What is your reaction to China’s announcement that it is abandoning its one-child policy? Do you think the new policy will have the effects anticipated?

In late 2013, the Chinese authorities decided to loosen the one-child policy and allow urban couples in which one member is an only child to have two children; until that time, only couples in which each member was an only child could do so. However, that change was not followed by any increase in fertility. In 2014, it seems that less than 10% of eligible couples formally requested to have a second child, and their reasons were primarily financial. In Shanghai, where couples have been encouraged to have two children since 2009, fertility remains very low: 0.7 children per woman in 2014. In fact, today’s new policy permitting all couples to have two children is not as radical as it may seem: the one-child rule applied to only slightly over one-third of Chinese couples. Furthermore, in the late 1990s, socioeconomic factors—skyrocketing housing costs, increased employment vulnerability, and extremely high education and health costs—became more determinant and prohibitive than the policy itself: few couples could afford to have a second child. Norms favouring small families became dominant. The effect of this is that only an outright pro-birth policy, with provisions for childcare facilities, family allowances, tax breaks for large families, could lead Chinese couples to rethink their reproduction strategies. Without that, abandoning the one-child policy is likely to have no visible impact on future fertility.

How has China’s official birth control programme changed over the years?

The first campaign to limit the number of births was launched in 1956; the second, which liberalized abortion and contraception, in 1962. But fertility in China only began its spectacular fall with the third campaign in 1971, recommending marriage at older ages, limiting urban couples to two children, rural couples to three, and calling for birth spacing. Then in 1979 the “one child” policy was adopted in the interests of economic modernization. In 1984 the policy was changed to apply exclusively to urban populations. The one-child birth control policy was applied very strictly for over 30 years.


It obtained remarkable results, but at what cost? What has the impact been?

Compounded with the effects of economic development, China’s birth control programme is estimated to have prevented between 300 and 400 million births. Fertility has dropped from nearly 6 children per woman in 1970 to under 1.5 today. But coercion during those four decades was very strong: there were millions of forced abortions and sterilizations.

 One effect of the fall in fertility has been a sharply skewed sex ratio at birth. In 2014, 117 boys were born for every 100 girls (15% above the norm). The demographic impact of the deficit in female births is considerable: fewer girls means fewer female life partners and mothers in the future. While for the last 30 years the fall has concerned primarily children, it is beginning to affect the adult population, as cohorts that are “missing” girls and women age. Starting in the 2010s, the surplus of men in consecutive cohorts of young adults is estimated at between 10% and 15%. Accentuated by the age gap between newlywed spouses, the adult sex ratio imbalance is having repercussions on the marriage market and family formation mechanisms.

 Lastly, with the fertility rate below 1.5 children per woman, population replacement is no longer assured. This means the population is ageing at an unprecedented speed. At the current rate, by 2050 every person of working age will have at least one economic dependent.