Women’s Progress Outdid China’s One-Child Policy

The abandonment of the one-child policy in China is a momentous change, and there is much to celebrate in the easing of restrictions on human freedom in a particularly private sphere of life. But we need to recognize that the big fall in fertility in China over the decades, for which the one-child policy is often credited, has, in fact, been less related to compulsion and much more to reasoned family decisions in favor of a new norm of smaller families.

This development has been particularly helped by the increasing empowerment of Chinese women through rapid expansion of schooling and job opportunities. What China needs now is further expansion of rethinking within families to overcome “boy preference,” which is still widespread, despite being at odds with the success of Chinese women.

This is a good moment to examine what the one-child policy has done — or not done. First, we must question the glib history that China was stuck in the adversity of high fertility rates until the policy changed it all.

The one-child policy was introduced in 1978. But the fertility rate had already been falling rapidly for a decade before that — from an average of 5.87 births per woman in 1968 to 2.98 in 1978. After that huge drop, the fertility rate continued to fall with the new draconian policy in force, but there was no plunge — only a smooth continuation of the falling trend that preceded the restriction. From 2.98 in 1978, the rate has declined to 1.67 now.

Clearly, something more than the one-child policy has been affecting birthrates in China. Statistics that compare different countries, as well as empirical analysis of data from hundreds of districts within India, indicate sharply that the two most potent factors that induce fertility reduction globally are women’s schooling and women’s paid employment.

There is no mystery in this. The lives that are most battered by over-frequent bearing and rearing of children are those of young mothers, and more schooling and more gainful employment both give young women a greater voice in family decisions — a voice that tends to work in the direction of cutting down the frequency of births. Rapid expansion in China of education, including that of girls, and the enhancement of job opportunities for young women occurred through a series of decades that began well before the introduction of the one-child policy, and they have continued robustly since.

As it happens, fertility rate declines in China have been close to what we would expect on the basis of these social influences alone. China often gets too much credit from commentators on the alleged effectiveness of its harsher interventions, and far too little for the positive role of its supportive policies (including its heavy focus on education and health care, from which many other countries can learn).
So while there are harrowing reports of the hardship created in the lives of many people in China by the enforcement of the one-child policy, it is far from clear that this policy has had a large impact on the fertility rate of the population as a whole.

The removal of the one-child policy may, in fact, have been an easy choice. There is little need for the harshness of this coercive program, given the increasing role of reasoning about family decisions, and particularly the growing empowerment of Chinese women.

This takes us back to a classic disagreement between Thomas Robert Malthus and the Marquis de Condorcet in the 18th century, at the height of the Enlightenment. Condorcet had noted the possibility of terrible overpopulation; Malthus acknowledged that he was following Condorcet in this, but he hugely exaggerated the danger when he rejected Condorcet’s reassuring argument that human reasoning would produce a corrective. Condorcet had anticipated the emergence of new norms of smaller family size based on “the progress of reason.” Buttressed by the expansion of education, especially for women (of which Condorcet was one of the earliest and most vocal advocates), he argued that people would choose voluntarily to cut the birthrate.

Reasoning in decision making is not exclusive to the West. In China it clearly has played a significant part already in restraining family size. It also has other important roles to play. Despite China’s extraordinary social and economic success (not just in economic growth), it has one of the worst records in the world in the selective abortion of female fetuses; the number of girls born per 100 male births has been as low as 85, compared with a normal rate around 95 in countries where there is little or no selective intervention against female birth. Chinese women have made huge progress in most spheres of life, but traditional “boy preference” is still rampant. However, legal remedies against sex-selective abortion, like outlawing it, have been ineffective wherever they have been tried.

What is needed is more reasoning, aided by further use of women’s empowerment, against such an arbitrary and dehumanizing bias. Such a change has, in fact, been very successfully achieved in South Korea, which once also had a very low ratio of girls to boys at birth. The cultivation of active public reasoning and wider understanding of the demands of gender equity have produced a huge change there.

China needs to rely even more on the force of reasoning, rather than on legal compulsion. The removal of the one-child policy is surely an important move in that direction. The fact that China’s demographic history over the last half-century gives firm evidence of what Condorcet called “the progress of reason” certainly gives ground for optimism. This is all the more important, since China has more challenges to address in this productive way.

Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate, is a professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard.

Leave a comment