September 25 marks the 30th anniversary of China’s public announcement of the one-child per couple policy.  Originally designed as a means for slowing the country’s burgeoning population, its effectiveness and continued enforcement in an age when more couples are choosing to have less children has produced a highly distorted gender imbalance, vulnerable families, and nationwide labor shortage, says Wang Feng, UCI sociology professor and recently named senior fellow and director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center in Beijing.  The resulting scenario, he says in a special Science magazine feature, has heightened rather than helped the economic and social conditions the policy was designed to address. Below, Wang Feng discusses how the policy has contributed to China’s changing demographic makeup and what its implications are for the country’s future. 

Q: How has the one-child policy impacted fertility levels in the country and what does this mean for China’s labor force?

A: As much as government officials in China like to advertize the role of the one child policy in controlling China’s population growth, the policy’s effect is limited. Fertility decline is a global trend and not limited to China alone.  During the first decade following implementation of the one-child policy, the fertility level in China hardly changed. In countries that did not have a similarly forceful policy – such as South Korea, Thailand, and Brazil – fertility had declined by roughly the same magnitude since the late 1970s.  For China, the fertility level started to dip below the replacement level of 2.1 children per couple following the country’s accelerated economic take off in the 1990s. This trend is similar to those seen in other countries during times of economic growth.   Today, we see the effects in China’s more than 150 million only children families located primarily in urban areas. Fertility decline driven by forces other than the one-child policy has created a rapidly declining young labor force and a rapidly increasing aging population.  The one-child policy has accelerated this process. Between 2000 and 2010, the size of the young Chinese labor force, aged 20 to 29, shrank by nearly 15 percent, and the trend will continue.

Q: What does the future hold for China should the nation continue on its current track? 

A: Enormous challenges. With a current fertility level at around 1.5 children per couple, China’s overall population will encounter rapid aging that will go unmatched in new births.  This will lead to an eventual population decline. China has a life expectancy that is only a few years shorter than the developed nations but a per capita income level only about one tenth of those nations. Rapid aging poses tremendous challenges for both public and private old age support. At the current fertility and mortality levels, China is expected to have 240 million elderly - aged 60 and over - in 2020, and 340 million in 2030 which is about one-quarter of the total population.  Aging not only means higher taxes for the working population – of which there are fewer to tax - but also increased costs associated with health care.

Q: Is this trajectory reversible, and if not, what can be done to make strides in restoring a more balanced population in China?

A: The trajectory is irreversible.  However, my colleagues and I have studied areas in China that have been exempted from the one-child policy and found in those areas that while population growth was not any faster, the sex ratio at birth was much more balanced and individual families were spared of the physical abuses that occurred during the forceful implementation of the one-child policy elsewhere. 

Q: Based on your findings, what actions have you taken to impact change in China?

A: As a scholar, my main mission and that of my colleagues, is fact-finding.  Through research, we provide policy makers and the public with evidence of China’s demographic shift and the role of the one-child policy in this process. We have in the last decade ascertained the current fertility policy requirement in China, the level of fertility and its trends, and the reasons for the recent fertility decline. In addition to formulating policy proposals, we have also taken our messages to the public. It is our hope that the findings from our research and our policy advocacy effects can facilitate responsible public policy making.

For the full Science magazine story, which includes a spotlight on UCI anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh’s Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng's China, visit

-Heather Wuebker, Social Sciences Communications
-photo by Wang Feng

connect with us


© UC Irvine School of Social Sciences - 3151 Social Sciences Plaza, Irvine, CA 92697-5100 - 949.824.2766