China’s 'one-child' policy led to a demographic time bomb, and now the country is scrambling to undo it

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  • China has become a demographic time bomb despite ending its one-child policy two years ago.
  • Local authorities are scrambling to incentivise women to have more children, as the country’s birth rate continues to drop.
  • Some provinces want to offer cash bonuses to parents who have a second child, and others are voicing support for eliminating all limits on childbirth.

For more than 35 years, China restricted all of the country’s women to having only one child – a policy that was implemented due to population growth and food shortages, among other things.

In 2016, a shrinking workforce and ageing population led the government to end the policy. Authorities began encouraging women to have two children. But the damage to China’s population growth had been done, and now the country is dealing with a demographic time bomb.

Demographic time bombs, marked by a falling birth rate and an increase in the number of elderly people, can cause a country’s economy to suffer. Though China’s economy boomed while the “One Child policy” was in effect, it now has too few workers to support a large number of senior citizens.

About 25% of China’s population is expected to be at least 60 years old by 2030, a notable increase compared to the roughly 13% of citizens who were 60 or older in 2010.

To undo this demographic time bomb, local authorities are coming up with new ways to encourage more childbirth. The northeastern Liaoning province in China has expressed interest in paying cash bonuses to parents who have a second child, the northwestern Shaanxi province has voiced support for eliminating limits on childbirth, and the National Health Commission has reportedly asked researchers to study whether tax breaks could generate a baby boom.

And earlier this year, the northern province Shanxi announced China’s first marriage subsidy, offering to help couples with the cost of wedding photographs, honeymoon travel, and more.

These efforts are vastly different from China’s previous stance on childbirth, when the government punished most couples who had more than one child with fines and enforced abortions or sterilization procedures for millions of women.

Despite the government’s desire to raise the birth rate, the percentage of Chinese women interested in having more children is falling. According to a 2017 survey by recruitment website Zhaopin, about two-thirds of working women with one child do not want any more children – a 17% increase from 2014. The percentage of women who are not interested in having any children at all rose from 21% in 2016 to 40% last year.

According to The New York Times, China’s new campaign to encourage childbirth is also causing concerns that the government may take extreme actions. In the southeastern Jiangxi province, for example, women who are more than 14 weeks pregnant need to get three signatures from medical personnel before getting an abortion. While this policy is not new, there is growing fear that authorities will enforce the rule more strictly than before.

Other provinces are making it more difficult for people to get divorced – in some parts of the country, couples are required to take a quiz about each other as part of the divorce process.Local news outlets have reported that a score of 60 points or higher – on a scale of 100 – is interpreted as “room for recovery,” with such couples being told to work on their marriages.

The number of births in China keeps decreasing, from 17.9 million in 2016 to 17.2 million last year. But according to The Times, the National Health Commission insists that the “two-child policy” is working, as the percentage of families with two children has risen from 36% in 2013 to 51% this year.

China is not the only country grappling with a demographic time bomb. In Japan, authorities are also taking steps to encourage women to have more children after the country recorded its lowest-ever number of births last year. In Spain, a low number of childbirths has created a population desert in the northeast, and Bulgaria’s population is on track to reaching the lowest point since World War II.

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