A year after China’s universal two-child policy was approved, British medical journal The Lancet has released a study forecasting that the resulting population increase will not be significant in the short term.
According to the study published Thursday, China’s population will peak at 1.45 billion in 2029, compared to 1.4 billion in 2023 if the two-child policy had not been enacted and the previous regulations, which allowed two children only for some families, were continued.
Deputy Director of Fudan University's Institute of Population Research Ren Yuan agrees with the general findings of the study, asserting that the predictions may have even overestimated the effects on population growth. “The two-child policy may delay reaching the population peak and cause a slightly larger population, but negative growth in China is inevitable,” Ren told Sixth Tone.
The one-child policy was first established in 1979 to curb rapid population growth after an increase from 540 million people to more than 800 million between 1950 and 1970. Today, the effects of the policy are evident in the nation’s shrinking workforce, aging population, and skewed sex ratio. But the Lancet study suggests that little effect on the largest problem areas will be seen over the next two decades.
One of the study’s two authors, Therese Hesketh, a professor at the UK’s University College London and China’s Zhejiang University, explained in a statement that the two-child policy “would allow most people to have their desired number of children and help address the skewed sex ratio, but that the effect on population ageing and the shrinking workforce will take longer to be felt.”
In light of the findings, researchers from The Lancet advise policymakers to raise the national retirement age — one of the lowest in the world at 55 for women and 60 for men — to address the labor shortage. The study predicts the two-child policy will not influence the size of the workforce until 2030.
The study does say that the two-child policy will significantly reduce challenges relating to the aging population in the long term, including the burden of the so-called 4:2:1 effect, in which couples are struggling to care for four elderly parents and one child.
To cope with a rapidly aging population in the short term, the researchers advise strengthening the state pension system and encouraging three-generation living to deal with the large numbers of elderly dependent on only-children for care.
In her book, “One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Social Experiment,” journalist Mei Fong points to the serious implications of the aging population, citing China’s 18.3 trillion yuan ($2.7 trillion) pension shortfall in 2013. “Of all the negative future repercussions of the one-child policy, [population aging] is the most painful because it is definitely happening,” Fong told Sixth Tone. “We can’t even be certain of the extent to which the one-child policy will crimp China’s future economic growth. We do know that short of some cataclysmic plague or war, China’s vast cohort of workers will grow older.”
Other benefits of the two-child policy include a decrease in abortions of second pregnancies, unregistered children, and sex ratio imbalance — with the latter expected to lead to a surplus of 30 million single men of marriageable age by 2020, according to the research.
The Lancet study is not the first to indicate modest short-term impact of the two-child policy. For example, a researcher at the U.S. think-tank Population Reference Bureau calculated that even with a generous assumed fertility rate increase to two children per woman by 2050, China’s peak population would only rise about 2 percent.
Furthermore, a lukewarm response to gradual family planning changes in recent years indicates that getting couples on board with the new policy might be more difficult than expected. Before the universal two-child policy took effect at the start of this year, the Chinese government allowed the 11 million couples who were only-children themselves to have an additional child; by May 2015, just over 13 percent of these couples had applied to take advantage of the exemption.
“Most Chinese parents cite the high cost of education, for example, as a reason not to have more children,” Fong explained. “Places like the Scandinavian countries have had some limited success reversing population decline with an array of family-friendly social programs: subsidies for education and childcare, and generous mandated parental leave. China has made only a few moves in that area, and would have to do substantially more.”
With the family planning policy changes failing to achieve the desired effect, some local Chinese officials have taken to drastic measures to help increase the fertility rate. Last month, the local government of Yichang, a city in central China’s Hubei province, called on civil servants to lead by example and have a second child.
Despite low estimates for short-term change, The Lancet characterizes the two-child policy as “a necessary and highly desirable action that will be beneficial for all sectors of Chinese society,” adding that “the total removal of the fertility control policy needs to be considered sooner rather than later.”
Ren suggests that the government influence family planning indirectly through economic and welfare policies that provide support rather than direct control. “The right to fertility should be returned to couples,” he said.
(Header image: Tang Ming Tung/Taxi/VCG)