The Chinese Communist Party Wants a Han Baby Boom That Isn’t Coming

China has swung toward natalist policies for the majority while forcibly sterilizing ethnic minorities.

A girl wearing a face mask plays on her scooter at a park in Beijing on Feb. 15.
A girl wearing a face mask plays on her scooter at a park in Beijing on Feb. 15. WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images

During China’s latest meeting of its top legislative body, the whole world took note as China passed a new national security law, cracking down on Hong Kong’s protest movement.

But perhaps even more consequentially in the long run, this year’s legislative session saw unprecedented interest from China’s policymakers on family policy. A new civil code made divorce harder while allowing remarried people to have more children, even as the government-affiliated outlet China Daily ran an op-ed calling for China to become explicitly pro-natalist. The province of Henan in particular has taken major steps to loosen its family planning policy and discourage divorce.

Such changes can give China watchers whiplash. China did not formally end its one-child policy, which (although it was sometimes patchily applied) effectively criminalized many large families, until 2015. And yet here we are, just five years later, with public allies of the government writing in a party-owned news outlet calling for explicit childbearing subsidies.

How did the world’s most vociferously anti-natalist government suddenly become so explicitly pro-natalist?

Chinese women hold plastic babies as they prepare for a class photo at a course to train to become qualified nannies, known in China as ayis, at the Ayi University in Beijing on Oct. 28, 2016.

Chinese women hold plastic babies as they prepare for a class photo at a course to train to become qualified nannies, known in China as ayis, at the Ayi University in Beijing on Oct. 28, 2016.Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Every discipline has its own issue that is very important to wider society, contentious among experts, and ultimately unresolvable. For demographers, it is China’s birth rate. Lack of transparent, reliable data in China has resulted in  massive, public disagreement among demographers about China’s birth rate and, hence, its total population. Demographer Yi Fuxian has led the charge on this front, arguing that China’s population may be overstated by as much as 115 million people. The United Nations’ database of fertility statistics includes estimates of China’s birth rate ranging from 1.1 (from administrative data) to 1.7 (from hospital data), or from 1 (from a regular sample survey covering many topics) to 1.8 (from a 2017 family survey).

Where the truth lies is anyone’s guess. The reality is that the data coming out of China isn’t good enough to settle the question of how many babies women in China have. Too many local governments have incentives to lie (such as in order to maximize funding allocations for schools and hospitals, or, on the other hand, to appear to be highly compliant with fertility-limitation policies), civil registration data is too incomplete, and the government is too politically invested in fertility politics to allow data transparency.

And yet, with each passing year, it seems more and more likely that those who think China’s birth rate is quite low (perhaps as low as 1-1.3 children per woman) may be correct. The most compelling evidence of this is simply China’s recent policy changes. The country suddenly awoke to its demographic malaise after the 2010 census results came in, and by 2016 the one-child policy was gone. Yet removing the one-child policy failed to create a baby boom, a nasty shock to China’s policymakers, who had long believed that the reason for low birth rates was their strict policymaking, despite similarly low birth rates in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and many other countries at similar developmental levels. That the repeal of the one-child policy failed to produce a baby boom seems to have created a new sense of urgency among China’s policymakers: The birth rate must be increased. Cue the rash of pro-natalist policies coming from the government. Evidently, the top brass in China are very worried about the country’s low birth rate, and trying hard to boost it.

Yet there are very real limits to what Beijing can achieve in terms of fertility, not least because Beijing’s security priorities are hard to reconcile with creating a family-friendly society for all of China’s people.

A mural promotes the one-child policy in China’s Yunnan province.

A mural promotes the one-child policy in China’s Yunnan province. Julio Etchart/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The history of China’s family policy is more complex than Western commentators often realize. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, and especially before the famine of 1958-1962, the communist regime was overtly pro-natalist. But the experience of famine, as well as the “population bomb” worries of the 1970s, motivated the next generation of policymakers to adopt an anti-natalist position. Public propaganda explicitly linked the one-child policy to efforts to prevent famine and stoke economic modernization, a propaganda campaign which both served state interests by minimizing the extent to which famine was caused by state policies and also resonated with the local officials tasked with enforcing the program. Very small family sizes become tightly linked with official and public ideas about what modern life meant.

The long legacy of this propaganda can be vividly seen in the recent documentary film One Child Nation, which includes numerous interviews with families and officials who experienced the harshest years of the one-child policy. To this day, even many parents forced to abandon their children to death by exposure will profess support for the one-child policy, justified by the official line that the alternative was mass starvation.

And yet the one-child policy was never uniformly applied. From the earliest days, there were exemptions for a variety of circumstances, and by 2007 a majority of Chinese citizens could legally have two children. The most common exemption was related to sex: Families whose first child was a daughter were often granted exemptions to have a second child. Thus, while the one-child policy led to a huge gender imbalance in China, with far more boys born than daughters thanks to gender-selective abortion, it also led to a lopsided female-skewed gender ratio for firstborn children in families with more than one child. Families who wanted to have a second child had to make sure their first child was a girl.

But there was another, perhaps even more politically significant exemption, provided for ethnic minorities. The communist government tended to adopt the view that the progress of modernization (and, hence, communism) among ethnic minorities was on a different track than among ethnic Han Chinese people. This rhetoric presenting minorities as “younger brothers” of the Han Chinese ethnicity was doubtless condescending, but it did yield some material benefits: Many minority groups were explicitly exempted from the one-child policy. Partly as a result of these exemptions, the 2000 census (the latest census for which public microdata is available) showed that Han Chinese women had about 0.5 to 1 fewer children per woman on average than women from ethnic minority groups. This higher fertility among minorities, alongside greater urbanization and education rates among Han Chinese people leading to hundreds of thousands emigrating abroad, has led to an inexorable rise in the non-Han share of China’s population. As of 2000, while 92 percent of those over 30 were Han Chinese, just 87 percent of newborns were.

But in recent years, even as China’s leaders have lifted restrictions on fertility that only really applied to urbanized Han Chinese people, the reproductive environment for minority families has deteriorated markedly.

A Uighur woman holds her baby at a night market in Hotan, in China's western Xinjiang region on April 15, 2015.

A Uighur woman holds her baby at a night market in Hotan, in China’s western Xinjiang region, on April 15, 2015. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

The minority exemptions from the one-child policy had important effects, so much so that academic research has shown that when provinces made one-child rules stricter, more Han Chinese people would marry ethnic minorities, as a strategy for avoiding the rules. Today, exemptions for ethnic minorities remain the letter of the law in most cases, but the legal and social position of minorities is in speedy decline.

Under President Xi Jinping, long-standing efforts to Sinicize minority groups have been ramped up to an unprecedented scale. While these efforts have been most prominent in Xinjiang, where perhaps 1 million or more people are held in concentration camps, minorities in other regions have felt the pressure too. For example, Muslims in Ningxia have faced growing pressure to adopt less overtly religious public lives. Tibet has been saddled with a new “ethnic unity” regulation. And of course this campaign of minority repression extends to Hong Kong, where individuals identifying as ethnically Chinese make up a minority of the population while self-identified ethnic Hong Kongers make up a majority.

In other words, China has relaxed the one-child policy and adopted a more pro-natalist stance for Han Chinese people, even while embarking on a wave of repression against minorities. This repression includes a worsening position for fertility. The figure below shows the change in the officially reported crude birth rate among Chinese regions between 1998 and 2018, versus the non-Han Chinese population share in each region as measured in the 2000 census.

Many highly urbanized regions with very few minorities (such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shandong, and Fujian) have seen their birth rates rise slightly, while regions with more minorities (such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai, and Yunnan) have seen precipitous declines in birth rates. (Hong Kong, not shown in this data, is no exception: Birth rates there have fallen significantly.)

Whereas once China’s policy was to limit Han Chinese fertility in the name of economic development, but allow ethnic minorities some flexibility, now China’s policy stance is evidently, “Pro-natalism for me, but not for thee”: more support for Han parents, but increasing discrimination against minority groups.

The problem facing China’s strategic planners is a daunting one. The figure below presents the United Nations’ estimates and forecasts of the population of men of fighting age in China and several countries closely aligned with China, as well as in the United States and U.S. allies in the Western Pacific.

The U.N. believes that “high” estimates of China’s birth rates (around 1.7 children per women) are basically correct, and even so shows that China’s peak manpower advantage over the United States came around 2000. Even if those relatively high birth rates remain stable over the next century, China’s manpower advantage over the United States and its allies in the Pacific will speedily decline over the course of the 21st century. But if birth rates fall to lower levels (about 1.2-1.3 children per woman), then by 2080, China could actually have fewer men of fighting age than the United States’ Pacific alliance network. And if the United Nations is wrong about China’s historic fertility rates, if demographers arguing that China’s population is 100 million to 150 million lower than official tallies suggest are correct, then the date at which U.S. and allied potential conscripts outnumber their Chinese rivals could come as early as the 2050s.

This math helps illuminate why China’s policymakers have made such a sudden about-face. Had the policy regime of one-child limits for Han Chinese people with exemptions for minorities or firstborn girls continued, then the total number of men of fighting age would have declined at an extraordinary pace, and a rising share of those men would have been members of ethnic minorities that Chinese military planners may regard with suspicion when it comes to matters of national security.

Even aside from national security concerns, this plummeting population of young people (the trends for prime-age women are better, but still show a steep negative trend) jeopardizes the “China Dream” promoted by China’s current leaders. Rather than a thriving middle class robustly demonstrating the vitality of the Chinese model of governance, China is likely to see economic growth slow down in the middle-income range even as it runs out of workers to continue its labor-fueled growth model.

A family wearing face masks prepare to board a train at Nanjing Railway Station before the three-day Dragon Boat Festival holiday on June 24.

A family wearing face masks prepares to board a train at Nanjing Railway Station before the three-day Dragon Boat Festival holiday on June 24. VCG/VCG via Getty Images

If birth rates in China have in fact been on the lower end of expert estimates for some time now, then China may be in a more advanced state of demographic decline than official statistics have indicated. Official statisticians might know this, but the main issue in Chinese statistics is with low quality of reporting at the local level, so even the government itself may not know the extent of the problem. But military recruiters may have a better sense of the changing demography on the ground, especially among men of recruitment age in the poorer areas of the countryside that the military largely recruits from. State-owned firms that hire hundreds of thousands of workers every year might also have their finger on the demographic pulse of the nation. These institutions have far more leverage with China’s policymakers than academic researchers. If they were signaling a dire demographic scenario, it would trigger exactly the kind of policy response China is now implementing.

However, these measures are not likely to meet much success. Thus far, China has only taken tentative steps in the direction of childbearing support and maternity leave, while making divorce harder. Childc are remains difficult to find and expensive when available. This is not a recipe for a large increase in birth rates.

Writing for China Daily, other demographers have noted that a major reason Chinese young people do not have children is due to the high burdens of elder care associated with small families, but providing more generous social support to elderly people in China would cost the government an enormous amount of money. Furthermore, the people in China who probably most want to have multiple children (ethnic and religious minorities) are seeing the hardest policy shift against their life choices, with churches and mosques being closed and minority languages and cultural traditions suppressed.

Put simply, it will be difficult for China to achieve meaningfully higher birth rates without radically adjusting government spending toward more social welfare, especially for elders, and without easing up at least a bit on Sinicization initiatives. But since both of these policy shifts are likely to threaten things China’s leaders see as core strategic concerns—the military budget and ethnic unity—neither is likely to occur. As a result, China’s birth rate is unlikely to rise significantly, and its population decline is likely to be precipitous, no matter how many regulations Beijing may put in place.

Lyman Stone is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and an advisor at the consulting firm Demographic Intelligence.