China introduced a one-child policy in 1979 to stop overpopulation. Now it's worried about underpopulation.
Demographics - what the population of a place looks like - has a huge impact on our societies and economies. So it’s unsurprising that many governments want to be able to influence it. One of the most infamous examples of this is China’s laws on how many children its citizens can have. In the 1970s, the Chinese government was worried about how fast its population was growing. More people require more resources: more food, more homes, more jobs, and so on. It was believed that sourcing and sharing all these extra resources would create all sorts of socioeconomic problems, so the government decided to introduce the one-child policy.
Since its introduction, this policy has been widely criticised for its premise (many people don’t think the government has a right to dictate your reproductive choices), the way it was implemented (which included hefty fines and forcing contraception, abortions and sterilisation onto people), and its unintented consequences (including the aborting of female fetuses or even the killing of female infants because boys were considered culturally and economically much more valuable).
Despite this criticism, China kept the policy. It has, however, relaxed it twice. In 2013, all married couples were permitted to have up to two children. Recently, this was put up to three. Ironically, the reason for these changes is that China is now worried about underpopulation. A society that has fewer kids becomes a society that has fewer working adults. That means fewer people creating stuff to sell and export, fewer people growing food, fewer people paying taxes, fewer people to support old and vulnerable family members, fewer people to join a country’s armed forces and Olympic teams, and so on. Overall, then, dropping birth rates can have big economic consequences.
The general consensus is that raising the child limit is not going to reverse China’s low birth rate by itself. That’s because data suggests government regulation isn’t the main reason people are having fewer children. Instead, people talk about things like the expense of raising kids, the difficulty of balancing parenting (and particularly motherhood) with a career, or just simply a personal and cultural preference for smaller families. This data suggests that a government who wants people to have more kids should probably look into policies such as generous parental leave and subsidised childcare. But it also suggests that it may now be hard to get the birthrate up no matter what the incentives are, because social norms have changed.
Read our explainer on: the role of the state.