Economic and cultural factors lead to China's low fertility rate, more so than government's one-child policy

Originally posted May 2010

Yong CaiChina is famous for its one-child policy. Thirty years ago, most Chinese women gave birth to two to three children, already one of the lowest among developing countries. In its first decade of chaotic implementation, China's fertility stayed at a level of more than two children per woman, followed by an accelerated drop in fertility in the early 1990s, which brought China's fertility to its current level of about one and a half children per woman. Carolina Population Center Fellow Yong Cai's research suggests that economic and cultural factors are critical to understand China's low fertility, and are more important than the government's one-child policy. He advocates for the return of reproductive freedom to Chinese people.

It has been more than a generation since the one-child policy was put into place. During this time, various global, national and societal changes have altered the daily lives of most Chinese people. Among the changes are major economic reforms, increased childcare and education costs, migration from rural farmlands to urban areas, and the end of state-guaranteed employment and elderly pensions in urban areas.

It is certain that Chinese women are having fewer children. However, the fertility rate is difficult to determine because of under-reporting of the number of children and varying survey methodologies. For these reasons, official government statistics of the fertility rate are higher than statistics that demographers report based on multiple data sources. Using data from the 1990 and 2000 censuses, household records, and school enrollment records, Cai's analysis puts China's total fertility rate at about 1.5 births per woman. Official government statistics state that the fertility rate is about 1.8 births per woman. Either way, the fertility rate is at a below-replacement level. [Audio clip: Cai describes the data used and why it is complicated to develop accurate statistics]

Under certain circumstances, the Chinese government permits couples to have more than one child. Cai explains: "Chinese birth planning policy, although it simply says it's one-child per couple, it's actually quite complicated. There are many exemptions allowed based on social and demographic conditions."

Population Age StructureIn some Chinese counties and provinces, the one-child policy is relaxed and couples are permitted to have a second child. In theory, this would lead to higher fertility. In reality, Cai found that fertility did not increase and most women gave birth to one child.

So Cai became interested in the question of intended fertility: Of those who are permitted to have more than one child, how many want more than one? And how many actually give birth to a second, or even a third, child? In the areas where the policy is relaxed, does the fertility rate increase?

To answer these questions, Cai developed a study about women's intended fertility in six counties of Jiangsu Province. He collaborated with other Chinese demographic scholars and the Jiangsu Family Planning Commission. [Audio clip: Cai talks about the study's hypotheses and how he and his colleagues conducted the study in Jiangsu Province, China]

In 2007, they conducted a survey of 18,000 women in the six counties and found that 30% were qualified to have a second child. Of those qualified, about a third of them said they would consider having a second child. The second wave of data collection is underway and preliminary data show that only about 4% of those qualified have had a second child since 2007.

Cai did not expect such low figures and returned to Jiangsu Province to interview the women again to understand why they didn't have a second child, even when they were permitted to do so.


There are two reasons, he said. "One is economic pressure. Chinese people are so success-oriented, they want to give their children the best education, the best of everything. The Chinese have a strong tradition emphasizing education. Over the last two decades education has expanded rather dramatically." He explained that a decade ago, of the college-age cohort, one of every twenty attended college. Statistics from 2009 show that one of every three in the college-age cohort attends college. Escalating educational costs also contribute to a couple's decision to raise only one child.

Cai described the second reason that couples don't have a second child as a cultural shift toward the belief that "one child is good enough." In effect, partly because of government propaganda associated with the one-child policy, a new set of cultural norms that a family can be complete with only one child, has emerged.

His research findings have been published in Demography, Asian Population Studies and Population and Development Review.

Cai and other scholars believe that the one-child policy should be phased out of existence. "Truth is, most fertility control happened before the introduction of the one-child policy," he said. "China is demographically ready and socially justified to change its population policy."

Many local governments and policymakers embrace the idea of relaxing the policy. Even the Chinese news media are grabbing on to the idea that the policy needs to be relaxed. [Audio clip: hear Cai talk about China's one-child policy and reasons to relax the policy]

Cai believes that human rights and reproductive rights are at the center of the issue: "People should have the freedom to make the decision whether to have no children, or three or four."

Retirement Home

Cai's future research includes further analysis of data from the second wave of the study in Jiangsu Province to further examine the fertility decision making process inside Chinese families. He also wants to study data from other countries with low fertility rates, perhaps developing a comparative analysis between them. What can be learned from other countries and how their policies changed their demographic make-up?

"This low fertility phenomenon is not limited to China. It's actually a global phenomenon so I want to bring a comparative perspective to this research."


Cai, Yong. 2010. China's Below-Replacement Fertility: Government Policy or Socioeconomic Development? Population and Development Review 36, no. 3: 419-40.

Cai, Yong. 2008. An Assessment of China's Fertility Level Using the Variable-r Method. Demography 45, no. 2: 271-81.

Zheng, Zhenzhen, Yong Cai, Wang Feng, and Gu Baochang. 2009. Below-Replacement Fertility and Childbearing Intention in Jiangsu Province, China. Asian Population Studies 5, no. 3: 329-47.


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