China, the World’s Most Populous Nation, Needs More Children

TIME International's cover story this week delves into the looming crisis facing China as its population grows old before it grows rich

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TIME Magazine International Cover, December 2, 2013
Illustration by Yuta Onoda for TIME

The Third Plenum leadership conclave that ended last week in Beijing brought — in addition to reams of turgid paeans to the Chinese Communist Party — hopes that President Xi Jinping and his team are committed to a national economic refurbishment. But among ordinary Chinese, the meeting’s most welcome outcome may be news that the notorious one-child policy is finally being loosened.

The new family-planning reform will allow couples in which one partner is an only child to have two kids themselves. (Already, farmers, ethnic minorities and couples composed of two only children are subject to more relaxed rules.) Each year, 1 million parents may take the government up on its offer to expand their families, according to demographers’ projections.

But as TIME notes in its international cover story this week, such “fine-tuning,” as state media characterized last week’s policy update, will not be enough to counteract the fact that “the world’s most populous nation, 1.35 billion strong, will soon have too few people — or, rather, too few of the right kind of people.”

(MORE: China Loosens Its One-Child Policy)

Last week’s reform does show that China’s leaders, after years of delay, are beginning to face up to the unintended consequences of the one-child policy. Unveiled in 1979 to galvanize a poor, populous society, the family-planning scheme is credited with having helped spawn China’s economic transformation, despite the human-rights abuses committed in its name. But as any society grows richer and more educated, family sizes tend to taper off. As TIME’s story notes, more than three decades of government-mandated family planning have exacerbated this natural trend and left China with:

a distorted population: too few youths, too few women and too many elderly. Writing in the Population and Development Review, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Population Council in New York City, three top Chinese demographers predict that “the one-child policy will be added to the other deadly errors in recent Chinese history,” alongside the turbulent 1966–76 Cultural Revolution and a devastating man-made famine from 1959–61. “While those grave mistakes both cost tens of millions of lives, the harms done were relatively short-lived and were corrected quickly afterward. The one-child policy, in contrast, will surpass them in impact.”

In implementing the largest social-engineering experiment in human history, the People’s Republic has merely traded one population time bomb for another. China now faces a multitude of social woes usually seen in more-developed economies better equipped to handle these challenges. It is growing old before it grows rich — meaning an explosion of elderly Chinese even as the government has presided over a fraying of the nation’s socialist safety net.

Last year the working-age population shrank for the first time, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, a huge concern for a government that depends on plentiful labor to deliver economic growth, which is in turn needed to quell social instability. By limiting urban families to one child while allowing some rural ones to bear two, China has skewed its population against the type of citizen it needs in order to climb into the ranks of developed countries. Then there are the some 25 million extra males, a result of tradition-bound parents ensuring that their offspring quota is filled by a son. “I don’t think the one-child policy was worth it,” says Mu Guangzong, a population expert at Peking University. “The people who made the policy never imagined all the problems we’re facing right now. Their knowledge of demography was shallow. Now society has to pay heavily for their ignorance.”

No date has been announced for implementation of this month’s policy tweak. In fact, such deadlines will be set locally. The timetable for further family-planning reforms isn’t clear either, leading to worries that change will come too late to combat China’s social and economic woes.

(MORE: Chinese Police Rescue Babies From Traffickers, but Parents Don’t Want Them Back)

Meanwhile, campaigns to catch high-profile evaders of the family-planning policy continue, even as some Chinese ignore the rules and choose to pay exorbitant government fines instead. (Other rich Chinese are giving birth overseas and registering the child for a foreign passport, which may be cheaper than paying the family-planning levies back home.)

On Nov. 19, Xinhua, the official Chinese news service, published an article about film director Zhang Yimou, who has been accused of fathering at least seven children with various women. Authorities in Wuxi, the coastal city that is the hometown of Zhang’s wife, have been trying to contact the famous director for months to get an accurate appraisal of his family size, according to Xinhua.

But even though Zhang appears to be in China shooting a movie, local authorities in Wuxi complained to Xinhua that they have not been able to reach him. Separately, the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, estimated that Zhang could be liable for more than $26 million in fines for his multiple offspring. Even for a family-planning bureaucracy that has made at least $330 billion from so-called social-support fees since the one-child policy began, according to one Chinese demographer’s estimate, that would be an impressive individual haul.

MORE: China’s One-Child Policy: Curse of the ‘Little Emperors’

292 comments
David Backlin
David Backlin

We need more kids to help pay off the debt Bush put us in

Oberserver
Oberserver

Medical advancement is a very key reason we have population problem(too many). Old people stay alive 30-40years after retirement,young  people having less kids. We don't worry about too many people, we should worry about the drop of productivity.

jefforsythe9
jefforsythe9

Nobody has the right to take away  the rights of another person. Only the brutal Chinese Communist Party could have come up with such a cruel policy and only because the morality of this planet has dropped so low in the past few decades does the World does not see the truth of the matter. The CCP has one thing at heart, the total control of its brainwashed people. It is a blood-thirsty cult with no concern for human life or human rights.

jefforsythe9
jefforsythe9

The right to bear children is nobody's  business other then the father and the mother. The one child policy in China had nothing to do with population control. It had everything to do with just control. The blood-thirsty Chinese Communist Party enjoys exerting its cruel will over its brainwashed people. It has murdered over fifty million of its own people since 1949 and is now attempting the genocide of the tens of millions of innocent Falun Gong who live there. Mao once said that he wanted to see a wave of red covering China. What kind of madman would say something like that? This was the CCP's nature then and it continues today. This is just my understanding, thank you for your consideration.

QEmum
QEmum

I worked this one out ages ago!

zaglossus
zaglossus

The solution to overpopulation is never easy.

mikercummins
mikercummins

We can see how the pressure on the Earth's resources continues.  There are too many people on the planet eating away at the land, the water and pumping fumes into the atmosphere.  Look at Europe.  It is packed.  The forests have over generations, been stripped away.  The earth does not need more people.  Our system of capitalism and wealth creation just thinks that we do.

Peter Chiu
Peter Chiu

indeed or just increase the intelligence of the people like in

Peter Chiu
Peter Chiu

look the problem is that it is the mind set of the people

Mary Brown Hill
Mary Brown Hill

Just a thought. Over population is a myth . I am usually wrong , but this could be true

Renan Stone
Renan Stone

Yes!! Liberals! kill the babies!! Earth Needs you! lol what a bunch of hypocrites let me guess killing someone with a drone is UN-human? lol

De Heuer
De Heuer

i dont think so... chinese give birth to a lot of children out side china

Deepu Deepu
Deepu Deepu

Its a serious problem that we are going to face next

Tushar Kanti Nayak
Tushar Kanti Nayak

The West need not feel scared with this development. Their enterpreuners must be feeling happy that their FDI has become more secured and in future they could hire labour at half the wages they are paying currently.

Meher Saigol
Meher Saigol

Labour shortage. Not enough people of working age relative to economic production, I think.

Mary L De Gaetani
Mary L De Gaetani

no one is condoning killing or deaths...it's called contraception, geez..condoms...th pill...tieing your tubes...seriously, i'm glad i just had 1...and unless this planet becomes healthier, i am not encouraging my son to have any kids....stop speaking emotionally and try to be aware of what is really happening to our planet

Paula Miller
Paula Miller

Women in even late stage pregnancy were forced to have abortions if they were caught being pregnant. How can anyone be okay with that?

Paula Miller
Paula Miller

I studied this a long time ago in college. It could be brutal for women who were found to be pregnant.

Lele Chantharath
Lele Chantharath

Nah! They dont need more people. They just kill off more people, since that what China has been doing with the pollution and poisoned food and slave labor! You'll reach a good number in no time!

Grzegorz Szymański
Grzegorz Szymański

last time there is liberalization because they are starting to be aware about population crisis in the future ;)

Angela Bentley
Angela Bentley

Americans need to have gastric bypass and birth control when they are born.

Patrick Lloyd
Patrick Lloyd

Finally a good piece... this is the type of journalism that made me subscribe to TIME when I was just a teenager!

Susana M. Sherwood
Susana M. Sherwood

When I was in China, our guide told us that in small towns people kill second babies to avoid punishment

Rebecca Bowen
Rebecca Bowen

Just so easy to talk about population control after being born already. We won't make any real progress until we respect all human life. If we have any intellegence at all, we will learn to use our resources more wisely and not eliminate our future generations. When we talk about population control, it is always at the expense of another person's life.

Mista Wasis
Mista Wasis

The One Child Policy saved them from being Nuked by the Yankees and bought the world a little time.

Andrea Wood
Andrea Wood

Invest in Education... it's the most effective means of population control. Educated men don't like to throw their money away on tons of kids, and educated women put off having kids so they can have a career first... better life and fewer people... win win

ysprefer
ysprefer

Every Chinese people do you object, as a Chinese, I am really ashamed of you. War, disease, misfortunes are natural methods to control the population, while as the technology development, people are enjoying better medical conditions, better living standards and consequently longer life. Of course, there is some side effects of the one child policy, every policy has some un-expected consequence, that is why just like driving a car, you shall turn the wheel continuely to maintian the utter most happiness and prosperity of its people.

I have read the times articles for some time, those articles are written in a different environment of culture, some of them I disagree, but neverther less, I found them quite inspiring and helpful, because there is always important to listen to a different view. This is the greatest benefit of free speech, and most people are enjoying it in China, although there are quite a lot of corruptions and pollutions in China, but on a general view, China is still a nationalist country, a capitalist country in the name of coummunism ( infact, USA is more communist than China, with obamacare, and other things)

In fact, what you bla-bla here have little effect, most people do not read New York Times, a few people who read times, has already formed his own point of view, and can compare what he see to what your say, and judge which is truth.

jefforsythe9
jefforsythe9

@Peter Chiu

 Sir Winston Churchill once said that for every question there is an answer that is clear, concise, coherent and wrong. This answer often becomes a person's mindset. A mindset can often affect major issues in one's life such as religion, race, sex and morality. Falun Gong is a heart and mind cultivation practise with one hundred million adherents Worldwide and is totally without charge. Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, offers a fresh new way to look at major issues in one's life. Thank you for your consideration.

jefforsythe9
jefforsythe9

@Irene GathirimuToday's morals have declined so quickly that it has become difficult for people to distinguish the difference between right and wrong, good and bad.  Falun Dafa, Falun Gong, is a heart and mind cultivation practice, and its practitioners believe in truthfulness, goodness and tolerance. There are one hundred million adherents Worldwide and the practise is completely free. www.falundafa.org. Thank you for your consideration.

judegu
judegu

@Irene Gathirimu What is your point?!

UmerFarooq
UmerFarooq

@Mary L De Gaetani planet will not be a healthier place with this attitude unless everyone consciously respect human-rights of other people rather to impose our limited thought as a solution.

Oberserver
Oberserver

@Susana M. Sherwood your guide misled you. Usually people go to country side to have a second baby. Abortion is legal in china, you don't have to wait and give  birth to a baby and then kill her just for the sake of avoiding punishment.All that labor is painful. No one with sound mind would do that.

KennethGallaher
KennethGallaher

@Rebecca Bowen So you plant to adopt the "extras" Of course not.  MYOB.

Oberserver
Oberserver

@Andrea Wood All you just mention are exactly the reasons why some countries need more babies. Adults just

think for themselves,enjoy life, and have no kids. Countries are having aging problem, not poupulation problem.

jefforsythe9
jefforsythe9

@ysprefer If one wants to learn the truth concerning the gangster Chinese Communist Party, one may go on line and read The Nine Commentaries. Thank you for your concern.