In 1798, Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), a mathematician and a Christian minister, published An Essay on the Principle of Population. He insisted that the power of the population is indefinitely greater than the power of the Earth to produce subsistence. Therefore, there is a natural law which states that the population would inevitably exhaust food supplies. While his ideas were a fairly accurate description of pre-industrial societies, his predictions of disaster did not materialize. Instead new methods of farming enabled food production to stay ahead of population growth.
In the 1960s, scientists again began to look seriously at some of Malthus’s ideas. Books such as The Population Bomb (1968) by Paul Ehrlich called for public policies to limit population growth. Like Malthus, these Neo-Malthusians predicted a population doomsday unless countries began to implement some population controls. By 1979 it was apparent that China’s population, estimated at 972 million, was growing at a rate which could not be sustained. In order to slow this population growth, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping sought to temporarily limit his country’s population growth with a One Child Policy.
The One Child Policy applies primarily to the Han Chinese, the largest ethnic group in China. While there are over 50 ethnic groups in China, the Han make up about 91% of the population. The One Child Policy provides some reward to families with only one child: higher wages, better schooling, better employment, and preferential treatment in obtaining government assistance and loans. On the other hand, for families who violate the One Child Policy there are sanctions, including fines, employment termination, and difficulty in obtaining government assistance.
At the present time, over half of China’s population (51%) lives in cities. Among the rural Han, a family can apply to have a second child if their first child is a girl. If a family’s first child is born with birth defects or major health problems, the couple is usually permitted to have a second child.
An interesting exception to the One Child Policy applies when two singleton children (the only offspring of their parents) marry. In this case, the couple is allowed to have two children.
When couples are permitted to have a second child, they usually have to wait from three to four years before conceiving their second child.
In a normal population, there are about 107 boys born for every 100 girls. Girls are biologically stronger than boys and are more likely to survive to adulthood. In China, however, the One Child Policy seems to have resulted in a ratio of 113 boys for every 100 girls. There appears to be sex-selective abortion, neglect, abandonment, and even infanticide of females due to some strong cultural preferences for male children.
China, the most populous country in the world, currently has a population of about 1.343 billion, which represents a growth rate of 138% since the One Child Policy was adopted. In comparison, the world’s second most populous country, India, currently has a population of 1.205 billion, which represents a growth rate of 180% since 1979. Most demographers project that India will pass China to become the most populous country in the world by 2027 or perhaps earlier.
China’s population is projected to reach a peak of 1.46 billion people by 2030 and then fall to 1.3 billion by 2050. It is anticipated that China will achieve zero population growth by 2025 and by 2050, China’s population growth rate will be -0.5%.
One of the population indicators used by demographers is the total fertility rate (TFR): the average number of children a woman will have during her lifetime. By 1967, the Chinese TFR was 5.91 and by 1978 it had declined to 2.91. At the present time, it is 1.55. A population is stable when the TFR is 2.1. In comparison, Japan currently has a TFR of 1.2, the countries of the European Union 1.5, Canada 1.6, and the United States 2.1.