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China’s One-Child Policy

Posted March. 24, 2010 08:23,   


Debate is flaring up over the possible revocation of China’s one-child policy. With the world’s biggest population of 1.3 billion, China introduced the policy in 1979 to improve living conditions through a reduction in the number of family members. The fertility rate declined to 1.2 to 1.3 children per woman, but this spawned another problem. Unlike in advanced economies, where low childbirth and an aging population began only after economic development, China is feared to start seeing an aging population in 2020 before it becomes advanced. A smaller number of children could struggle to support a larger elderly population.

In Korea, a catchphrase popular in the past said, “Even one child per household will fully crowd the Korean Peninsula.” After the government allowed just one child per household, families in Korea’s farming culture and Confucian society scrambled to give birth to a son at any cost. With the development of ultrasound, the abortion of female fetuses spread. The distorted situation in Korea has subsided, but the practice continues in China. The girl-boy ratio in China has soared from 100:108 in 1989 to 100:123 this year.

When these Chinese boys reach marriageable age, their country will face a serious shortage of brides. The Chinese Academy of Social Science said, “Ten years from now, one in five boys will have no chance to find a spouse.” Korea is overcoming such a situation by bringing in foreign wives from Southeast Asia, but this seems difficult for China to do. More voices in the Middle Kingdom are warning of social and political unrest, including higher incidence of kidnapping, rape and violence, resulting from frustrated bachelors who cannot find wives.

A bigger problem is that families with sons are scrambling to increase savings to give their sons a better chance at marriage, a situation that could suppress consumption and cause an economic slump. A research team led by Columbia Business School professor Shan-jin Wei recently released a study that suggested the Chinese families’ drive to increase savings for their single sons is half of the reason for a jump in the country’s household savings rate from 1990 to 2007. Many experts, including former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, say China’s excessive savings have inflated real estate bubbles worldwide and caused an imbalance in the global economy. This in turn is being blamed for the global economic crisis. If China ends its one-child policy, will the crisis end? The Economist magazine said Chinese provinces, which are less strict in enforcing the one-child policy and have higher income levels, have stronger preference for sons. As such, Beijing is in limbo over this problem.

Editorial Writer Kim Sun-deok (yuri@donga.com)