China’s route to low fertility: Eight estimates of the fertility trend, 1988–2008 (Guo 2011)
At least three reasons can be identified for the dismissal of the 1992 survey results: (1) the sudden and surprisingly low fertility level reported by the survey following a decade of fertility fluctuations; (2) the deterioration of data quality in general over the course of the 1980s as China’s centrally planned economic system started to fall apart; and (3) perhaps most importantly, the beginning of the “one vote veto” birth-control-responsibility system for government officials at all levels down from the central government. Under this system, officials could be dismissed or denied promotion simply by failing to meet birth-control quotas. As a result, scholars reported widespread underreporting of birth numbers and questioned whether the fertility decline reported in the survey was real (Zeng 1996; Merli 1998; Merli and Raftery 2000).
A full decade passed before another event spurred Chinese scholars to revisit the question of fertility change. That event was a research conference on Chinese population change, organized in 2003 by Zhongwei Zhao at the Australian National University (Zhao and Guo 2007). Two papers, in particular, provided the basis for scholarly exchange and sparked renewed interest in examining fertility change in China. One, by Thomas Scharping (Scharping 2003a, b, 2007), convincingly laid out the complexity and confusion of Chinese fertility numbers and reminded people how impossible it was to get to the bottom of numbers in China. Another, by Zhang Guangyu (Zhang and Zhao 2006), provided strong evidence and a convincing argument that, despite problems in the collection system for Chinese birth statistics, fertility had really begun to decline again, starting in the early 1990s.
Galvanized by this scholarly exchange, and with the release of China’s 2000 census data, researchers interested in population change in China took a renewed look at fertility and were able to see a new demographic trend. With multiple data sources available by then and with methods ranging from birth-history reconstruction to indirect estimation, a clear picture of China’s new fertility regime quickly emerged (Guo 2004a, b; Retherford et al. 2005; Zhang and Zhao 2006; Guo and Chen 2007; Cai 2008; Gu 2009; Morgan et al. 2009). These studies all confirmed the onset of China’s below-replacement fertility (Fig. 2.1, NBS/EWC 2000 Census). Even those who were skeptical of China’s population data, after extensive and careful review of evidence, agreed that China indeed had entered the era of below-replacement fertility in the early 1990s (Goodkind 2004, 2011).
Chinese government agencies, however, especially the National Population and Family Planning Commission (NPFPC), preferred not to believe the results published by scholars and tried to prove a case otherwise. For two decades, including a full decade after scholars had confirmed China’s below-replacement fertility, the Commission denied that fertility in China was well below replacement level. Official statements first insisted that China’s fertility was “around the replacement level.” This was the official position until the mid-2000s, when the Commission began insisting on a total fertility level, unchanged for years, of around 1.8.1 Both estimates were well above the level reported by scholars. These official numbers were drawn from fertility estimates prepared by the Commission’s handpicked experts for their National Strategic Study of Population and Development (Fig. 2.1, NPFPC).
The NPFPC favored studies showing higher fertility levels and even engineered a story of fertility rebound in the mid-2000s based on a flawed survey. Studies, sometimes co-authored by officials associated with the Commission, used school-enrollment data to adjust for alleged birth underreporting (Yu and Wang 2004; Zhai and Chen 2007). This source, as shown by others (e.g., Cai 2009), has its own limitations. In 2006, the NPFPC conducted another national fertility survey and concluded that China had experienced a fertility rebound in the mid-2000s. The total fertility level calculated from the 2006 survey increased from 1.59 in 2004 to 1.74 in 2005 and 1.87 in the 12 months leading up to the survey (Fig. 2.1, 2006 NPFPC Survey). A careful analysis by Guo Zhigang, whose results were first censored by the Commission, revealed that the survey design was seriously flawed. Discrepancies between the sex and age structure of this survey and that of the National Bureau of Statistics’ 2005 1/100 population survey indicated that the NPFPC survey missed women of reproductive age who had changed residence, mostly rural-to-urban migrants. This serious deficiency in the survey design led to an inflated fertility level (Guo 2009).
To continue a story of high fertility and to reinforce the need to reduce fertility, the NPFPC tried to rein in other government organizations that collected demographic data, such as the National Bureau of Statistics. The Commission also used estimates from international organizations, including the United Nations Population Division (UNPD), to prove their case. Beginning in 2006, after the 2005 inter-census population survey, the National Bureau of Statistics broke ranks with the NPFPC and reported a fertility level of 1.6 or below (Fig. 2.1, NBS). The UNPD, after years of reporting China’s fertility at 1.8, in part based on input from Chinese official sources, drastically revised estimates downward beginning with the 2010 world population projections (Gu and Cai 2011; Cai 2012). While UNPD’s 2008 edition of World Population Prospects (United Nations 2009) projected that China’s population would reach a maximum size of 1.463 billion in 2032, the 2010 edition (United Nations 2011), published in May 2011, projected a maximum size of 1.396 billion, to be reached in 2026. This is a difference of 6 years and 67 million people between projections published only 2 years apart.
It is by now beyond any doubt that fertility in China is well below replacement level and has been below replacement level for two decades, if not longer. Analyzing China’s 2010 census, scholars have further confirmed these results (Guo 2011; Zhu 2012; Cai 2013). Even the NPFPC, before its merger into the Ministry of Health in March 2013, conceded that fertility in China was around 1.63, a level higher than what scholars had estimated but much lower than the level reported in its own earlier statements. After a two-decade delay, China has finally come to terms with its new demographic reality, a country with fertility substantially below the replacement level.
Causes and Implications of Low Fertility
Chinese officials and some observers in China and abroad tend to attribute China’s fertility decline to the one-child policy. There is little doubt that China’s birth-control policies—both the later-longer-fewer policy and the one-child policy—have played a significant role in reducing fertility. But while the less extreme later-longer-fewer policy may have played a significant role in China’s early fertility decline, the importance of the one-child policy is often exaggerated, and its role is becoming smaller due to other forces at work.
The drop in fertility to below-replacement level occurred as Chinese society entered a new phase in its history. The onset of below-replacement fertility, in the early 1990s, took place at a time of substantial economic reforms and a historic economic boom. These developments triggered a fundamental shift in the context of childbearing (Wang and Mason 2008). For one thing, the two decades beginning in the early 1990s saw massive migration waves of young Chinese from rural to urban areas. These two decades saw the fastest pace of urbanization, expansion of higher education, and improvement in living standards in Chinese history (Table 2.1). Income level, measured at current purchasing power parity (PPP) in international dollars, increased by nearly tenfold in 20 years. Over a 20-year period, the gross secondary-school enrollment ratio more than doubled, from 38 % of children at secondary-school age in 1990 to 80 % in 2010. Over the same period, gross tertiary-school enrollment increased by eightfold, from 3 % of the appropriate age group in 1990 to 24 % in 2010. At the same time, the share of China’s population residing in urban areas nearly doubled, from about one-quarter to one-half of the total, making this the largest urbanization process in world history (Table 2.1).
Major demographic and socioeconomic indicators, China, 1990–2010 (mean age at marriage calculated from China censuses; other data from World Bank 2014)
Annual birth rate (per 1,000 population)
Life expectancy (years)
Total fertility rate (children per woman)
Female mean age at marriage (years)
Per capita Gross National Income (GNI), purchasing power parity (PPP) in current international dollars
Secondary-school enrollment ratio (% gross)
Tertiary-school enrollment ratio (% gross)
Mobile phone subscribers (per 1,000 population)
Internet subscribers (per 1,000 population)
Two important forces linked to this rapid economic change contributed to China’s renewed fertility decline—a complete shift of the cost of childrearing from the collective to the family and intensified pressure to “get ahead” generated by the opportunities and uncertainties associated with this period of hyper economic growth. Beginning first in the early 1980s in rural areas and in the late 1980s in urban areas, the socialist planned economic system that had previously supplied considerable support for childrearing started to disappear. The state and the collective were no longer responsible for food, housing, and employment. In rural areas in particular, public education and healthcare systems deteriorated rapidly, which shifted the cost of education and healthcare from the collective to individual families.
At the same time, the unprecedented economic opportunities attracted massive numbers of young people from the countryside to the cities and propelled urban youth to spend more time in school and to move around for better jobs and better pay. Urban housing reforms beginning in the late 1990s resulted in a construction boom and housing bubble and sent housing prices, especially in China’s major cities, skyrocketing. The arrival of the Internet connected Chinese youth to other young people within China and beyond. Suddenly, young parents who grew up in China’s post-Mao era realized that having children is truly expensive, both in terms of time and money.
Studies of China’s low fertility in recent years confirm the role of socioeconomic changes, independent of government policy, in producing a new calculus of childbearing. Comparing aggregate fertility data from 151 counties in Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces with measures of birth-control policy and economic and social development, Cai (2010) reports that variations in fertility in 2000 were predominantly an outcome of variations in development, not policy. He concludes, “A key finding from this exercise is that these development factors are so powerful that, combined, they explain a much larger proportion of fertility variation in Jiangsu and Zhejiang than do the policy factors” (2010, p. 433).
Studies based on individual-level data report similar results. Another longitudinal study in Jiangsu Province, launched in 2006, found that the one-child family has become a new norm, with cost the top concern. Among more than 4,000 women who were eligible to have two children under the current birth-control policy, 55 % reported one child as their ideal family size. Among all the reasons given for their preference, “costs too much to raise a child” and “one child is enough” topped the list, with more than 70 % of respondents choosing one or the other of these explanations. By contrast, only 32 %, cited “following the government’s call [for birth control]” as a reason for wanting only one child. The cost of raising children, in these respondents’ minds, is not simply the immediate requirement to provide food and clothing, but the more general and long-term costs, as only 33 % reported “current economic status not good” as a reason for wanting only one child (Zheng et al. 2009). These concerns and constraints are very similar to those mentioned by young people in other low-fertility settings in Asia (Jones et al. 2009).
Shifts in other demographic behavior, not affected directly by China’s birth-control policy, offer further evidence of the importance of economic and social change. Over the past three decades, there has been a clear trend toward later marriage and a related change in the age pattern of fertility. Both trends have accelerated in recent years and are beyond the requirement of the one-child policy. Women’s mean age at first marriage, as shown in Table 2.1, rose by nearly 2 years in one decade—from 22 in 1990 and to 23.9 in 2010. The proportion of women never married at age 25–29 rose from 5 % in 1982 to 9 % in 2000 and 22 % in 2010, indicating the most pronounced change in the decade between 2000 and 2010 (Fig. 2.2). In urban China, the share of never-married women age 25–29 reached 30 % in 2010 (not shown in the figure).