Fertility Trends and Population Growth in China

Written by Baochang Gu.

During the 1950s and 1960s, China’s total fertility rate (TFR) was at a level of around 5 to 6 children per woman[i]. As a response to the rapid population growth of close to 3 percent per annum, the Chinese government launched a nationwide family planning programme in the early 1970s. The programme incorporated a strategy of “wan” (late marriage and late childbearing), “xi” (longer birth spacing), and “shao” (fewer children in life), along with the free provision of modern contraceptives to all citizens. The decade of the 1970s witnessed a dramatic decline in China’s fertility, from 5.79 in 1970 to 2.75 in 1979, a reduction of more than half in a period of less than a decade[ii]. Most of the reduction in fertility was due to the aversion of unwanted childbearing at high parities, particularly in urban areas, as well as the postponement of marriage and childbearing.

Encouraged by the achievements of the family planning programme and while facing an economy on the edge of collapse, the Chinese government decided to further tighten its fertility policy. In September 1980, in an Open Letter, the members of the Communist Party and the Youth League were called to restrict their fertility to one child per couple. This policy was subsequently applied to the majority of Chinese couples. While China’s TFR stayed at around 2.5 children per woman during the 1980s[iii], an analysis of parity progression ratios revealed that reductions occurred, particularly among the high parities both in urban and rural areas and in remote regions.


Figure 7.5. The course of the TFR in China, 1950 – 2010. (Source: Baochang Gu)

It is estimated that if all Chinese citizens would have followed the fertility policy specified for various population groups, the overall fertility for the country would be at 1.47[iv]. This would imply that two thirds of Chinese families would have ended up with only one child. By the early 1990s, China’s fertility had fallen to a level below replacement. The 2000 census reported a TFR of 1.22[v] and the 2010 Census reported an even lower fertility (TFR 1.19[vi]). This extremely low fertility, reported from the national statistics, caused heated debates on the quality of data and questions about the true fertility of Chinese women. Nevertheless, even taken into account all the possible statistical errors and underreporting, there is no doubt that Chinese fertility has fallen to a level well below replacement for more than two decades, and most scholars agree that the current fertility in China is around a level of 1.5[vii].

Although China’s population is still growing due to the population momentum, the speed of growth has been slowing down. China’s average annual rate of population growth had reduced significantly from 1.07 percent over the period of 1990-2000 to 0.57 percent over the period of 2000-2010[viii]. The natural growth rate for 2013 dropped even further to 0.49 percent.

The patterns of low fertility in China have brought up some important questions. For instance, what was the main determinant of China’s fertility decline? Was it due to the government’s fertility policy or due to socio-economic development? The government claims the aversion of 400 million births is the result of the government-induced family planning program, while others argue that the social and economic changes that occurred in China in the last several decades have fundamentally altered the fertility culture and childbearing behaviour of Chinese people, particularly among the younger generations.

Once the fertility of a population remains below a certain level for a number of years, it can – according to several authors – imply a self-reinforcing demographic system of long-term low fertility, which is extremely hard to reverse. This is called the ‘low fertility trap’. The cut-off point for a low fertility trap is often placed at a TFR of 1.5[ix]. Concerning a possible low fertility trap for China, some have warned that given the extremely low fertility observed in recent years, China may likely have fallen into the trap already. However, others consider it too early to draw conclusions. Another fierce debate, held until recently, was on whether or not it was time for the Chinese government to consider the removal of the One-Child Policy before it was too late. As is well documented, this debate is now over as the One-Child Policy has recently been lifted.

Despite the waging debates and concerns, the government decided in November 2013 to initiate a partial change to the One-Child Policy by allowing couples with one spouse as a single child to have a second child. This measure was taken with caution because of the fear of creating a new baby boom wave. On the contrary, the graduate implementation of the new policy in 2014 over various parts of the country did not have a major impact on fertility levels. Surprisingly, “among the estimated more than 11 million couples who were eligible to have a second child under the new rule, only 1.69 million had applied as of August 2015, accounting for 15.4 percent of such couples.”[x] The lukewarm response from these eligible couples triggered off another policy debate as to whether or not the government should allow all couples to have two children, and even touched upon the removal of official birth control altogether. In October 2015, the government decided in the Fifth Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee that all couples would be allowed to have two children. The announcement of the new policy declares the official ending of the 35 year long One-Child Policy in China.

The future prospect of the growth of the Chinese population is highly dependent on the path that future fertility will take. The White Paper on China Population and Development in the 21st Century issued by the government in 2000[xi] stated that the population size will peak at 1.6 billion in the middle of the 21st century. A few years later, the National Population Development Strategy Report issued in 2007 claimed it would peak at 1.5 billion by 2033[xii]. The most likely scenario recently projected by the United Nations Population Division is a peak at 1.4 billion near 2030[xiii].

The substantive downward shift of the peak size by about 200 million and the upwards movement of the timing of this peak by around 20 years show the necessity and urgency of enhancing the understanding of population dynamics under the regime of low fertility. It also calls for a proper response from the government and society at large to the new era of population issues, in terms of its implications regarding socio-economic development, environmental issues, and the well-being of all citizens, particularly women and children.

Dr Baochang Gu is Professor of Demography in the Center for Population and Development Studies, Renmin University of China. Image credit: CC by Luis LuCheng/flickr

[i] National Statistics Bureau (2005). 2004 China Population. China Statistics Press.

[ii] National Statistics Bureau (2005). 2004 China Population. China Statistics Press.

[iii] National Statistics Bureau (2005). 2004 China Population. China Statistics Press.

[iv] Gu, Baochang, Wang Feng, Guo Zhigang, and Zhang Erli. 2007. “China’s local and national fertility policies at the end of the twentieth century,” Population and Development Review 33(1): 129–147.

[v] National Bureau of Statistics, Department of Population, Social, Science and Technology Statistics. 2002. Tabulation on the 2000 population census of the People’s Republic of China. Beijing: China Statistics Press.

[vi] National Bureau of Statistics, Department of Population and Employment Statistics. 2011. Major figures on 2010 population census of China. Beijing: China Statistics Press.

[vii] Zhigang Guo and Baochang Gu, 2014. “Low fertility in China: Evidence from the 2010 census.” In Isabelle Attane and Baochang Gu (Editors) Analyzing China’s Population, Social Change in a New Demographic Era. INED Population Studies 3, Springer, Dordrecht: 15-35.

[viii] National Bureau of Statistics, Department of Population and Employment Statistics. 2011. Major figures on 2010 population census of China. Beijing: China Statistics Press.

[ix] McDonald, Peter (2008), Very Low Fertility Consequences, Causes and Policy Approaches. In: The Japanese Journal of Population, Vol.6, No.1 (March).

[x] Xi, Jinping. 2015. On Explanation of the Proposed 13th Five-Year Plan. Xinhua News Agency, November 3.

[xi] Information Office of the State Council, the People’s Republic of China. 2000. White Paper on China’s Population and Development in the 21st Century. December, Beijing.

[xii] Research Group of National Population Development Strategy, 2007. National Population Development Strategy Report. Beijing.

[xiii] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. 2015. World Population Prospects. The 2015 Revision.

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