China’s one-child policy, once called the Great Wall of family planning, was among the boldest strategies any nation has deployed in modern times to manage the size of its population. But after 35 years in force, experts say, the policy was having undesirable side effects: It upended traditional structures for supporting older adults and led to a widening imbalance in the number of men and women, one that could sow social unrest.
Many in China welcomed the announcement on Thursday that the policy would be changed to allow two children per couple. But experts said that, because having one child has become the social norm in China, the change will have only a limited impact, while the old policy’s legacy will be felt for decades to come.
Fertility Rate May Remain LowDemographers agree that around the world, fertility rates generally fall as wealth and women’s educational levels rise. Hazel Denton, a former World Bank economist who teaches demography and development at Georgetown University, predicted that over the long run, this effect would have more impact in China than the policy change.
“Where women have a choice, and they have the opportunity to be educated and employed, they will choose a smaller family,” Dr. Denton said.
Many wealthy countries, in fact, are more worried about their populations shrinking than growing. Most have fertility rates below the level needed to maintain a stable population — about 2.1 births per woman — and some have tried to create incentives for families to have more babies.
Richard Jackson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted that China’s neighbors tend to have low fertility rates. In Hong Kong, the rate is about one child per woman, even though Beijing’s one-child policy never applied there.
Dr. Jackson said the rate in China was about 1.5 births per woman before the policy change, in part because many exceptions to the one-child rule were made. The rule was most strongly enforced in cities, he said, while families in the countryside whose first child was a daughter were often allowed to try a second time for a son. He predicted that China’s fertility rate would probably climb to only 1.8 children per woman.