Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

China shifts a failed cultural policy designed to stabilize population

Posted 29 Oct 2015 / 1

The New York TimesChina to End One-Child Policy, Allowing Families Two Children

This was a long time coming (see Mara’s Hvistendahl‘s great 2010 piece in Science Magazine for perspective), but the Chinese Communist Party has finally decided to replace its “one child policy” with a “two child policy”. From an evolutionary perspective, there is so much to this story:

  • It seemed inevitable that this policy would become problematic. One child per couple is half replacement, so for those who complied this meant a 50% reduction in population size per generation. This rate of population shrinkage is highly disruptive to complex societies, which depend on the youth of today to keep the entire society running tomorrow. And even if the policy was designed to produce a stable population size — assuming that urbanites and Han Chinese would be the most compliant while rural residents and ethnic minorities had larger families — by reducing the average to two children per couple, it had a lot of potential to create social destabilization. Assuming that a lot of culture is transmitted from parent to offspring, asking a segment of the population to have only one child while other segments have more is going to shift cultural values rather rapidly.
  • I find it so fascinating how the perspective of everyday Chinese is depicted in this article… it’s hard to know how accurate this portrayal is, but if it is accurate, Chinese culture appears to have coevolved around this cultural policy. Tell people for decades that they can only have one child and over time they will come to believe that it is better to invest a lot into a single offspring. Cultural values like this are unlikely to change radically in response to a policy change. How long will it take for cultural values to embrace the idea of having multiple children?
  • This policy was dangerous economically, which is a warning for us all. Unfortunately, you cannot reach a stable (and potentially sustainable) population size simply by asking a segment of your society to have fewer (or no) children. In the Chinese case, efforts to shift towards a service economy are at odds with a state family planning policy that encourages those with the greatest access to educational privilege to have fewer children; if you want to move away from a manufacturing economy, you cannot maintain a system in which those with the least access to education have the largest families. Either educational access needs to be broadened so that it does not matter who is having children, or there needs to be more balance in who is having children. Normatively I favor increasing educational access, but from a scientific perspective it does not matter which option you choose: just don’t expect your economy to shift away from unskilled labor if you incentivize greater population growth amongst segments of the population with the least access to education.
  • Economic warning number two: population stability is incompatible with our current economic system, so if you want a stable population we had better shift our economies. One of the stated reasons for ending the one child policy is to help avert a slow-down in the Chinese economy. That it is necessary for the population to grow in order for the economy to thrive is bad news on the sustainability front. The Chinese example shows that there is at least one way to threaten your economy while you try to stabilize population; it’s likely there are a myriad of other population stabilization policies that would similarly mess with the economy. We need to stabilize the human population soon, but if we want to maintain the benefits that modern economies afford us we had better think carefully about how stabilizing population affects our economies. That also means shifting our economic systems away from an unsustainable dependence on growth; economic policies have co-evolve with population stabilization policies to produce a sustainable society.
  • If we seek to engineer culture, we had better think about context. In this case one could argue that China’s one-child policy was designed without thinking enough about the cultural foundations upon which it would have to sit. A cultural preference for male offspring paired with a law forcing couples to have only one child was bound to lead to an unstable sex ratio. Unstable sex ratios tend to produce social instability, not a byproduct that you want to accompany your stabilized population.


A Minor Post, Articles, Breeders, Propagators, & Creators, Carrying Capacity, Cultural Evolution, Economic sustainability, Economics, Ethics, Law, Population Growth, Population Pressure, Public Policy, Social Norms

1 Comment to "China shifts a failed cultural policy designed to stabilize population"

Chris Jensen 2nd November 2015 at 12:20 pm

Another great Mara Hvistendahl piece covering the mess created by China’s one-child policy:

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