Fertility Transition in China

Type Conference Paper - International Conference on Declining Fertility in East and Southeast Asian Countries
Title Fertility Transition in China
Publication (Day/Month/Year) 2006
URL http://www2.ier.hit-u.ac.jp/pie/stage2/English/d_p/dp2006/dp292/text.pdf
Although large family used to be desired by Chinese culture, the natural fertility level in
China was never as high as that recorded in the Hutterites population. According to historical
studies, the TFR in the natural fertility regime was around 7-8 in Chinese society1
The 1950s and the 1960s witnessed very high fertility, except for the period of 1959- 1961
when mismanagement and natural disaster caused massive excess mortality and very low fertility
(Peng, Xizhe, 1987). China’s nation-wide fertility transition started in the early 1970s, which was
initialised by the government sponsored family planning programme. Total fertility rate declined
sharply from 5.8 in 1970 to 2.8 in 1979, a more than fifty per cent decrease. While the
government programme has played a crucial role in bringing down Chinese fertility, the
fundamental changes that have taken place in China’s socio-economic structure since 1950 have
also undermined the century-long reproductive norms and paved the way to the fertility reduction.
It is often assumed that once fertility transition has started, the momentum will maintain and
fertility will inevitably reach replacement level (Cleland & Wilson, 1987). However, China’s
marked fertility reduction that had occurred in the 1970s did not get the same rapidity into the
1980s, despite government efforts in implementing the much more rigid family planning
regulation, the so-called “One-Child per family” programme. The potential for fertility decline
created by the socio-economic changes of 1950-70s seems to be exhausted by the 1980s, leading
to a TFR fluctuating between 2.3-2.9.
Patterns of fertility transition in the 1980s indicate that China might have experienced two
different kinds of fertility decline in these two decades. While the decline in the 1970s was mainly
from high to low fertility, the 1980s witnessed a decline from low to near or even below
replacement-level fertility. The two kinds of fertility decline cannot be considered different only in
the numerical sense. It seems that the early transition is relative easier and could proceed fast in a very short time period, but the later is much more difficult and requires somewhat more fundamental
shift in socio-economic condition and the value system related to reproduction.
The early 1990s witnessed another nation-wide downward trend of fertility, with the coastal
‘opened-up’ areas at the fore. This new wave of fertility decline is certainly benefited from the
economic reform and social changes generated from economic development. Moreover, the
impact of the re-affirmed government commitment to population control should never be underestimated.
According to official statistics, the TFR was reduced from 2.3 in 1990 to 2.0 in 1992,
and has remained below replacement level since then.
It has been a subject of controversy whether fertility in China was dropping as rapidly as
indicated by the official statistics. Some demographers argue that the official birth statistics are
subject to serious undercounting. (Zeng Yi 1995, Attane & Sun 1999) The State Family Planning
Commission may be the only government agency in China that openly admits the problems in its
statistics and tries to correct them. The commission has conducted annual random survey to
double check quality of population data and made great efforts to improve the accuracy of
statistics. Results from these surveys varied widely between provinces and regions. In areas like
Shanghai and Jiangsu, it was reported that more than 99 per cent of the births were registered,
while underreporting could mount to more than 20 per cent in some other rural locations2
It is interesting to note that the total fertility rates of the 1990s that were derived from
several national surveys, both conducted by the State Statistics Bureau and the State Family
Planning Commission, are consistently around 1.6-1.8 after adjustments, in spite of changes in
sample selection and methods of field work 3 . Other researches, more or less, echo these
. So far, there is no single estimation of TFR that is widely accepted by the scholars.
However, the publicised official figure, say TFR around 1.7-1.8, in my opinion and also
commonly cited by researchers, is not far away from the reality.

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