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China's population drop is expected to have global economic consequences

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here's one sign of how quickly China changed its approach to family planning. Less than a decade ago, China was still banning most couples from having more than one child. The one-child policy aimed to restrain the growth of a nation with 1.4 billion people. Now as the population starts to decline, state-owned media reports some Chinese cities are paying people to have more children. Yun Zhou has followed this change. She is assistant professor of sociology and Chinese studies at the University of Michigan.

Good morning.

YUN ZHOU: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What role did the one-child policy play in this population decline that we're now seeing?

ZHOU: China's one-child policy came at a time when fertility has already been declining for over a decade. And China's population size has always been as much a demographic issue as it's a political issue. China's one-child policy was based on pseudoscientific demographic projections that at the time - when China was coming out of the culture revolution - the Chinese leadership thought restricting one child to every married heterosexual couple would produce or would design a population size that is most optimal for China's economic development.

INSKEEP: Yeah, because you have a problem if you have too many older people and not enough younger people who are still working. You end up with a massive demographic cliff, as they say.

ZHOU: Yes, exactly. And China's past development of the last several decades has been reliant on a population that's often rural, young and male. And these individuals have to navigate often a murky landscape of citizenship rights and labor rights.

INSKEEP: Experts for many years in the latter years of this one-child policy wondered, why is China doing this? This is not going to work in the long run, and people can look at the numbers and see that there's going to be a problem soon. But they persisted until very recent times with this one-child policy. You said they were depending on pseudoscientific studies. Did the Communist Party really have in their head that this was going to work?

ZHOU: They thought - at the time, a lot of the demographic projections with the leadership was very much based on doomsday writings about population explosion, and they thought by limiting birth to one child per married heterosexual couples, it will spur China's economic development because large population size has not always been viewed as a blessing...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

ZHOU: ...But sometimes a curse, too, by the Chinese leadership.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should note what really happened here, that aside from the policy, there's the reality of a country getting richer. And when a country gets richer and people's lives change and they urbanize, people tend to have fewer children anyway.

ZHOU: Exactly. That has been the consensus, that had there not been the one-child policy, given the socioeconomic development, population or fertility would have declined. So really, having this one-child policy that increased - or limits women's bodily autonomy and reproductive rights to such extreme - is it really necessary? That has always been the question.

INSKEEP: Now they're starting to pay people in some places to have extra children, to have a third child in some families. That hasn't worked very well in other countries when it's been tried, though.

ZHOU: And it has not worked very well in China either. For Chinese individuals, for young Chinese people, having children contains a multitude of calculations. It often has to do with their sense of self, their - what an ideal life and what an ideal family is to them. That went beyond simply monetary incentives.

INSKEEP: So if the population is just going to go down, what happens to things like China's massive infrastructure or China's massive real estate development when there just aren't as many people to use those things?

ZHOU: For the Chinese leadership and for the Chinese labor market, they really have to contend with this dramatic shift in population composition, and it has to contend with this shift in how older individuals, how women workers are treated. And it has to contend with their shift about what China's population looks like and the imaginary of what it means to be Chinese nowadays.

INSKEEP: Yun Zhou is at the University of Michigan.

Thanks for your insights. Really appreciate it.

ZHOU: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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