Births in China: Social U-Turns are Hard!

By Shlomo Maital

     Social U-turns (radical changes in policy involving social behavior) are immensely difficult.    Consider China’s one-child policy, now doubled to “two children are OK”. It’s not working too well.

       China’s one-child policy aimed at lowering the growth rate of its rapidly growing population.   The policy set a firm legal limit on the number of births parents could have, and was introduced in 1979. In the mid-1980’s it was changed to let rural parents have a second child if the first was a girl. The policy lasted three decades and was abandoned at the end of 2015.

   A New York Times report by Sui-Lee Wee and Steven Lee Myers, from Beijing, now notes that China’s birth rate has fallen to the lowest rate in six decades, despite the rule change permitting two children. In 2019 only 14.6 million babies were born in China, in a population of 1.4 billion. That is a 1% birth rate – not sufficient to supply the labor China’s economy needs.

     Why has China’s birth rate not increased since 2015? Here is the best explanation. “We are all only children,” said a young Chinese dental assistant, “and to be honest, a little selfish. How can I raise a child when I’m still a child myself? And take care of him and feed him at midnight?”

     I have a strong suggestion for China’s leaders. Contact Dan Ariely at Duke U. and his group of researchers, along with Richard Thaler, George Lowenstein, Robert Shiller, and other leading US behavioral economics experts. Ask them to design a few small-sample experiments. The Chinese people are very very pragmatic. They do what is in their interest.   How can having two children be shown to be in the interest of hard-working Chinese middle-class educated couples? I’m pretty sure the behaviorists will have some answers.

       Notice how hard a social U-turn is, even in China, where authorities rule with a strong hand. If you believe America is going to change radically, even if Trump loses in November, please think again. Social change has strong momentum and by the laws of physics, Momentum equals mass times velocity. There is a large mass of Americans who think like Trump, and even if you slow their velocity the momentum is still immense.