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America’s One-Child Policy

What China imposed on its population, we’re adopting voluntarily.

Sep 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 02 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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For the last several months, Chinese officials have been floating the idea of relaxing the country’s famed “One-Child” policy. One-Child has long been admired in the West by environmentalists, anti-population doomsayers, and some of our sillier professional wise men. In Hot, Flat, and Crowded (2008), for instance, Tom Friedman lauded the policy for saving China from “a population calamity.” What Friedman and others fail to understand is that China is built upon a crumbling demographic base. One-Child may or may not have “saved” China from overpopulation, but it has certainly created a demographic catastrophe.

America’s One-Child Policy

Tyler Jacobson

Between 1950 and 1970, the average Chinese woman had roughly six children during her lifetime. Beginning in 1970, the Chinese government began urging a course of “late, long, few,” and in a decade the fertility rate dropped from 5.9 to 2.1. But that wasn’t enough for the government. In 1979, they instituted the One-Child policy—which is more complicated than it sounds.

Under One-Child, couples wanting a baby were required to obtain permission from local officials. (In 2002, the government relaxed this provision; you can now have one child without government clearance.) After having one child, urban residents and government employees were forbidden from having another. In rural areas, however, couples are often allowed to have a second baby five years after the first. Any more than two, however, and the government institutes penalties. Sanctions range from heavy fines to confiscation of belongings to dismissal from work—in addition to the occasional forced abortion or sterilization. The overall result is a Chinese fertility rate that now sits somewhere between 1.9 and 1.3, depending on who is doing the tabulating. Nicholas Eberstadt noted that “In some major population centers—Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin among them—it appears that the average number of births per woman is amazingly low: below one baby per lifetime.”

One-Child marked a radical change in the trajectory of China’s population, from staggering growth to probable contraction. In 1950, China had 550 million people; today it is home to 1.33 billion. According to projections from the United Nations’ Population Division, -China’s population will peak at 1.458 billion in 2030. But then it will begin shrinking. By 2050, China will be down to 1.408 billion and losing 20 million people every five years.

At the same time, the average age in China will rise dramatically. In 2005, China’s median age was 32. By 2050, it will be 45, and a quarter of the Chinese population will be over the age of 65. The government’s pension system is almost nonexistent, and One-Child has eliminated the traditional support system of the extended family—most people no longer have brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, or nephews. It is unclear what sort of havoc this atomization will wreak on their society. China will have 330 million senior citizens with no one to care for them and no way to pay for their upkeep. It is, Eberstadt observed, “a slow-motion humanitarian tragedy already underway.”

By 2050, the age structure in China will be such that there are only 1.6 workers—today the country has 5.4—to support each retiree. The government will be forced to either: (1) substantially cut spending (in areas such as defense and public works) in order to shift resources to care for the elderly or (2) impose radically higher tax burdens on younger workers. The first option risks China’s international and military ambitions; the second risks revolution. 


When we talk about the “fertility rate,” we mean the “total fertility rate” (TFR): the number of children born to the average woman over the course of her lifetime. In order for a country to maintain a steady population, it needs a fertility rate of 2.1. If the rate is higher, the country’s population grows; lower and it shrinks.

During the last 50 years, fertility rates have fallen all over the world. From Africa to Asia, South America to Eastern Europe, from Third World jungles to the wealthy desert petro-kingdoms, every country in every region is experiencing declines in fertility. In 1979, the world’s fertility rate was 6.0; today it’s 2.6. Industrialized nations have been the hardest hit. America’s 2.06 is one of the highest fertility rates in the First World. Only Israel (2.75) and New Zealand (2.10) are more fertile.

China and America have yet to witness the effects of falling fertility because of demographic momentum. Populations increase even as fertility rates collapse, until the last above-replacement generation dies, after which the population begins contracting. The rate of contraction speeds up as each generation passes. No society has ever experienced prosperity in the wake of contracting population.

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